New York

Joseph Nechvatal

Neither abstract nor representational, Joseph Nechvatal’s chaotic, layered paintings, seething with media-derived imagery, hover somewhere in between. Over the past decade, Nechvatal’s basic concerns have remained constant: our media-glutted postindustrial society and the effects of this information overload on the subject. Here, the artist’s method of production gives his paintings their decisive twist. He first creates a photographic maquette of collaged elements that include his drawings and sculptures, as well as found photographs and video stills. This composite image is then fed into a digital computer, which programs robotic arms to apply paint to canvas. Nechvatal’s creative process reflects the extent to which technology has infiltrated our lives, but it is also an attempt to subvert technology by using it to create subjective, irrational images.

Nechvatal’s project includes a body of critical writing in which he rejects the possibility of returning to a Modernist vocabulary in painting, as well as post-Modern alternatives such as simulation and“neo-geo.” For Nechvatal these latter approaches are not only self-destructively cynical, but as self-aggrandizing as the tradition they set out to critique. Nechvatal’s answer to the cool of “neo-geo” is a “decadent” art that would, in theory, whip our already empty sign system into a frenzy, reducing it to a common denominator for pure or “higher” consciousness. Nechvatal would act as a kind of Dionysian shaman/semiotician, purging the collective consciousness of the media’s influence in search of meaning, before and beyond the sign. Although it is debatable that any painting or body of paintings could achieve this goal, Nechvatal’s project is a valiant attempt to confront the dead end in which much media-oriented art currently finds itself. He seeks to transcend a bankrupt sign-system without retreating into the past. This dilemma sets the tone for his paintings populated by figures or parts of figures trapped in environments of free-floating and seemingly hostile signifiers.

In both Serenade and Sacrifice, both 1989, figure-fragments emerge from a field of static, laden with assorted information that includes running text. The composition of the former is flattened by thick, horizontal bands of color that recall a TV screen, while the latter involves a more complex break-up of space in which the images look as if they are violently self-destructing. Nechvatal’s paintings are characterized by a tension between surface elements and random forays into depth, a spatial ambiguity that serves as a metaphor for our own unstable environment. In Lament, 1989, a three-dimensional figure is trapped between a background covered with the artist’s allover drawing and a network of restricting surface bars. In Episteme, 1989, the hands of a figure disappearing into a flat, abstract field, protrude in an eerie gesture of supplication. Nechvatal presents the problem of information overload, and at the same time pushes it to an extreme as if he hopes to discover something there. The result is an uneasy limbo.

In two canvases marked by a warm, erotic intensity, entitled The Double Eros and Pas de Deux, both 1989, pairs of figures hover in vaguely organic atmospheres. The threatening nature of Nechvatal’s pictorial environments is highlighted by titles such as Miasma—diseased atmosphere—and Metastatic Garden—the transfer of disease from one site to another, both 1989. Like frozen screens, these smaller paintings present the insidious nature of information saturation.

Nechvatal may seek to provoke ecstasy and ultimately enlightenment in the viewer, but he distances himself from this ecstatic state by using a technological prosthesis to paint. His use of this apparatus succeeds in making the dual point that while a nostalgic retreat from modern technology is absurd, it does pose a threat to our subjectivity. Yet this tactic might also be seen as the artist’s caution against falling prey to the pitfalls of expressionism, a final stronghold of the subject-centered disposition that perhaps precludes the possibility of his desired breakthrough in consciousness. For the time being, these paintings brilliantly embody an ongoing push-pull between human and technological forces, an esthetic and spiritual limbo that defines our contemporary condition.

Jenifer P. Borum