The Ghost of Electricity

Barry Blinderman


"Is the next step in evolution to be the transformation of man into
nothing more than electronic patterns?"
- Alan Watts, The Book, 1966

Joseph Nechvatal's recent computer-robotic assisted paintings are eerie
dot-matrix apparitions of technology's manifest destiny - the
dissolution of boundaries through science. Man creates in his own
image: the telephone, television and computer are literal projections of
our perceptual and cognitive mechanisms. In effect, the
digital/electronics revolution has supplied us with a colossal external
nervous system that has radically altered our concepts of space,
simultaneity, and individuality. With an unprecedented saturation of
hallucinatory imagery, the specular regime of television, film and
photography transforms society into a phantasmagoria; removing us from
the reality of the world while pretending to capture it. Technology,
the great equalizer, has achieved through mass-media overload the
erasure of difference: images of real horror are neutralized by their
coexistence with game shows and liquor advertisements. TV is the most
direct form of mind-to-mind communication, delivering the masses
wholesale to the corporate sponsors.

"A certain amount of contempt for the material employed to express an
idea is indispensable to the purest realization of this idea."
- Man Ray

Within the confines of a computer-efficient society, scathing visions
poke through the glacier of sameness that has advanced upon us.
Nechvatal's belief in technology's promised new channels of perception
is tempered by his awareness of the accompanying threat of
societal/nuclear disintegration. It is this paradox which lends his
work its conceptual and political tension. His "paintings" are, in
fact, executed by robotic arms spewing computer-commanded jets of red,
yellow, blue and black pigment onto canvases up to twelve feet wide -
using the same state of the art process which currently creates
advertisement billboards.

Nechvatal's involvement with media imagery and production tools dates
back to 1980, when he began exhibiting intimately scaled graphite
drawings comprising saturated, interwoven line tracings of pictures
culled from newspapers and magazines. Irrational juxtapositions of
images and scale were submerged into an all-over abstract network. He
later produced photographically enlarged details of these drawings, onto
which he sprayed bands or atmospheric areas of color.
Photo-silk-screened images on canvas preceded his use of the computer to
digitize, enlarge and "paint" his current work.

"The forms of art are always preformed and meditated. The creative
process is always an academic routine and sacred procedure. Everything
is prescribed and proscribed. Only in this way is there no grasping or
clinging to anything. Only a standard form can be imageless, only a
stereotyped image can be formless, only a formularized art can be
- Ad Reinhardt, "Timeless in Asia"

Nechvatal's working philosophy is akin to Ad Reinhardt's embrace of
Eastern concepts of vacuity, repetition and refinement - a quest to push
substance to the verge of immateriality. As Reinhardt programmatically
erased signs of individual gesture, working in series resembling
production lines, Nechvatal distances his touch from the work long
before it is digitized by computer and executed by robotic arms.

Nechvatal's work extends the dimensions of Reinhardt's existential Void
through the metaphorical implications of electronic imagery. Ethereal
impulses that are transmitted, received, and ultimately left to drift in
the far reaches of space are likened to our transient corporeal presence
in a continuum of being and non-being. Caught in a labyrinthine web of
spectral resonance, images emerge and recede like impulses from the pool
of the unconscious. The collective wreckage of history is washed ashore
on laser-scanned waves. Altimira's urgent talismans move among the
shadows of Plato's cave, transforming into new mythologies whose heroes
are yet unchosen.

"Today information moves fast, while meaning travels very slowly. The
era of information makes less not more sense. But when the meaning of
things is lost, when you no longer believe in structures and power, you
find yourself in a spiritual state like in Zen, the satori experience,
or in any mystical state where the world makes no sense whatever and
where a more profound and universal meaning emerges."
- Joseph Nechvatal, 1987

We receive a superabundance of information via scan-lines, whether on
TV, computer screens, or color reproductions in magazines and
billboards. It is fitting that Nechvatal should employ a technique
calling attention to information processed line by line to magnify his
subversive images to the scale of media. Realizing the degree to which
electronic media has infiltrated our dreams and unconscious, he uses the
robotic arm as an extension of his own hand, recycling media's detritus
and projecting it in a new form before the viewer's eye and mind. The
ebb and flow between visible and invisible, between presence and
absence, in Nechvatal's computer-robotic assisted paintings suggests
the desire to momentarily retrieve and redeem these fleeting images
stripped of signification. Yet there is really nothing to clutch and no
one to clutch it.

Barry Blinderman

First printed in "Joseph Nechvatal: Paintings 1986-1987", a catalogue
for an exhibition of Joseph Nechvatal's computer-robotic assisted
paintings which Barry Blinderman organized for the University Galleries
at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois in 1988