On the Ecstatic Excess of Joseph Nechvatal

Carlo McCormick

This essay is a revised version of a review published in the March 1988
issue of "Artforum" magazine which appeared in a small
catalogue/announcement for the exhibition "Joseph Nechvatal" which was held
at Anders Tornberg Gallery in Lund, Sweden in 1989.

In a manic proliferation of communication, Joseph Nechvatal's over-mediated
language streams across the viewer's info fried consciousness as a miasma of
fuzzy, fleeting, and overlapping images. The result is something like
receiving television signals from several stations and data-banks
simultaneously on a single screen and trying to read the tangled web of
electronic blips and blobs for whatever subliminal truths can be found

One way to look at Nechvatal's development since his first shows in NYC
alternative spaces in the 1970s would be in terms of the various media with
which he has chosen to work; making major shifts in presentation without
markedly altering his art's complex graphic structure which is based
primarily on telecommunications and its technology. However, the succession
of pencil drawing, photocopying, photography, re-photography, sculpture, and
computer-robotic assisted painting tells only part of the story.

Over the past few years, Nechvatal's art, while remaining stylistically
consistent with his earlier work, has undergone a transformation of no minor
significance. Although his post-modern tea leaves will always be open to
different interpretations, he appears to have moved away from direct
socio-political assault and more into a hyper-sensory sublime.

In 1984 Nechvatal described himself as an agitator in an information war
being conduted over the viability of nuclear force in terms of the Cold War.
What concerned him was the psychic numbing that came about through the
ever-present possibility of nuclear annihilation. Of his process of
art-making he said, "I tend to degenerate archetypal media images. I rip off
images from the media ... then destroy/transform them in the interests of
unintelligible beauty". This process involved appropriating media-images,
entering them into his "data pool" by tracing them one upon another, and
then further transforming them by breaking them down, contaminating and
sublimating them in the obscurity of gray stratums and abstract marks so as
to style what he called "pictures that do not look like pictures".

In his recent work (1986-7), the degenerated images (now fabricated via
computer-robotics) form a vibrant surface that is less legible than ever.
Its self-consuming intensity digests its own content, which has become
tangible only as a transmission of unconscious ideas that never quite
convene. The social issues end up as sediment left in a cathartic rinse.

As a reaction against the soullessness of contemporary simulation, Nechvatal
has deliberately sacrificed his polemical armor to find his own notion of
autonomy. He has abandoned diatribe and irony in favor of mystery; thus
finding a way out of the ideologically oppressive dead end of

Post-Modern criticism only thinly disguises the redundancy of long-exhausted
and facile material. Nechvatal's alternative is not a conservative
Post-Modern regression into the clichés of romantic expression but a
building - from the rubble of our deconstructed signs - another "expansive"
state of consciousness. What matters is the viewer's expansive play of the
imagination - a point that Nechvatal once made by quoting the TV character
Edith Bunker (from "All in the Family") on modern art when she said, "It's
not what you see, it's what you think you see."

Over the years Nechvatal has exposed and examined the infrastructure of our
contemporary information network, and with his latest efforts he has begun
to seek a deeper and more expansive understanding of its underlying
mysteries. Since 1986, when Nechvatal made the seamless, yet dramatic, shift
in his medium by allowing the computerized-robotic apparatus to subjugate
the artist's hand (the last vestige of individualistic self-identity our
culture desperately clings to) there has been a startling new sense that in
his losing this self-conceiving gesture of humanness to the digital (it is
the action of art-making, rather than the visual or material aspects of art,
which signify for many the presence of an organic soul), he has somehow
found something else entirely - something perhaps even more of what we'd
call a heightened sensation or awareness of the self.

Contrary to the innate suspicions of hysteric technophobia, the art of
industry Nechvatal has given himself up to has not reduced the sum quantity
or intensity of meaning, viscerality, visual complexity, or perceptual depth
which artificial production supposedly can't translate or fully simulate
from the realm of real life experience. While contemporary art persists in
expressing the mass efforts of technological animation and proliferation in
society as an aesthetics of cold, alienated and disembodied minimalism or
kitsch; Nechvatal has shown an even greater tendency toward pictorial
saturation than before - and a gothic self-referentiality that transmutes
the banal into a baroque fugue of intoxicating excess.

Ultimately, the transcendence offered by Nechvatal's computer-robotic
assisted paintings is a descent into lower, darker, more deeply buried
stratas hitherto mostly denied by rational Science. Such a recess is - if we
were to trace it on the invisible chart of the imagination's cosmology - an
abandoned recline across the pictorial axis of participation. That is,
whereas the potency of Nechvatal's earlier work effectively drew us into the
well of lust and loathing for the intemperate and immortal man-machine, he
could never completely hurl us into the sensual throes of its demonic-erotic
grip until recently because his own fascination was always measured across
some palpable distance of voyeuristic reflection. However, as these images
evince, Nechvatal has now fully submerged himself (and us) into the
forbidden repose of industry's telesthetic mania. He's married the
machine-monster of our dreams and consummated the original bio-technic sin
of Modern Man with a passionate leap into the hallucinatory abyss of
civilization's reviled man-hole: excess. An adoration of the screen as the
anima of electrically alive hyper-space, Nechvatal's ecstatic excess is a
union of faith and science anchored in hyper-sensory experience. For all his
technological, semiotic, and aesthetic virtuosity, his greatest weapon is
ecstasy itself.

Carlo McCormick
NYC 1987