Letter From Paris: Joseph Nechvatal’s Velvet Love

by Matthew Rose

Galerie Richard
74, rue de Turenne
Paris, France  75003
May 30 – July 19, 2014

Joseph Nechvatal, June 2014.  Image courtesy of Joseph Nechvatal and Galarie Richard / Paris.

It is fair to say that Warhol owned Campbell’s Soup cans, Coke bottles and Marilyn the way Pollock owned paint drips, Hopper hotels and lonely diners, and Koons polished steel balloon poodles. It might also be fair to say that Joseph Nechvatal, an American artist who works in both New York and Paris, and takes a post-conceptualist approach to art making, owns a human aperture – the anus.  prOtOcOls nOn (nO rules), Nechvatal’s current Paris exhibition at Galerie Richard, brings together seven large format works of cosmic anal images produced via his homemade computer virus. Nechvatal employs a system of computer-assisted robotic spray guns to paint the final pieces on luscious white velvet canvas.

The digitally manipulated portraits of this all too human portal – perhaps our lowest common denominator – is made complex by a layering of technology and philosophy, a destruction/deconstruction game mixed with chance, and sometimes, the artist says, the hum of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s saxophone.

Nechvatal’s palate is not typical of the “computer” –  splashy neon colors, but more Martian – sepia and peach, red and black and white. While most of these canvases show off clusters or single apertures they appear to be exploding against an infinite black horizon – evolving in a space odyssey. You can almost hear them making some noise: but are they dying or becoming?

Joseph Nechvatal. nOiseanusmOs,  2011. Paint on white velvet, 112 x 168 cm. Image courtesy of Joseph Nechvatal and Galarie Richard / Paris.

Armed with a Ph.D. and an author of books, like his Immersion Into Noise (along with dozens of published essays and reviews), Nechvatal is on a mission that demands contemplation from his viewer in a way very different from other progenitors of visual icons. Fully embracing Walter Benjamin’s famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Nechvatal wants us to see and understand the process of creation and capture the work’s meaning in an act of thinking-looking. The paintings themselves are sensuous textured essays, a portrait of the marriage of the human body and technology. But the meaning of this many-headed “union” is like the pixel currency we trade in daily: present yet hidden in plain sight.

Nechvatal began working in digital media well before the Internet became the primary source of our image consumption. He invested in “viruses” in 1992, partly as a fascination with man-made computer viruses (whose purpose is solely to disrupt and destroy computer systems) and as an investigation of AIDS – that scourge which destroyed whole communities around the world spread largely through friendly, sexual contact.

Viruses both biological and computer-based, are essentially invisible: you don’t know you have them until your system begins to break down. Thus it is with Nechvatal’s anal portraits here. They are hidden rear “situations” and moments perhaps in the throes of breakdown or creation or both. And as such, they mirror our culture way more than any polished steel poodle ever could.

Installation view.  Image courtesy of Joseph Nechvatal and Galarie Richard / Paris.

His work, which includes paintings, animations, audio and texts, makes me think about my low-tech art hero, Christian Marclay, an artist with deep Fluxus tendencies. Marclay has long worked in all aspects of sound/music from collaging record covers together to “Tape Fall,” (1989), a Whitney Bienniale work of a waterfall literally descending and piling up via reel to reel tape in the stairwell of the museum to his pop masterpiece, The Clock, a 24-hour collage of time in video. Nechvatal wants to give us a falling endless pop culture too, but his target – too dense and mysterious to brand in any overt way – is essentially consciousness of the pop self/identity myth itself.

The artist cites Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” as the classical origin for his “hybrid” painting:

“The hermaphrodite initially occurs in Western culture as a son of Hermes and Aphrodite named Hermaphroditus. Hermaphroditus was a typical, if exceptionally handsome, young male with whom the water nymph Salmacis fell madly in love. 

“When Hermaphroditus rejected her sexual advances, Salmacis voyeuristically observed him from afar, desiring him fiercely. One spring day Hermaphrodituts stripped nude and dove into the pool of water that was Salmacis’s habitat. Salmacis immediately dove in after him – embracing him and wrapping her body around his, just as, Ovid says, ivy does around a tree.  She prayed to the gods that she would not be separated from him – a prayer answered favorably. Consequently Hermaphroditus emerged from the pool both man and woman.” 

The moral of the story: We are creatures of our desire and that desire will replicate and in replication there is mutancy and virus and in that, we reveal ourselves to ourselves. But it’s complicated this revelation. The fact that Nechvatal uses art and speculative philosophy and science fiction to splash out this pictorial narrative is only incidental. I can imagine him creating deserts in fancy restaurants or tailoring a suit for a Wall Street Wolf that might actually bear the same grim tidings.

Installation view.  Image courtesy of Joseph Nechvatal and Galarie Richard / Paris.

The artist’s language of paint borrows from the “future” – robotics. Not so much ink jet, as the jets inked on our minds when we were kids, the history of a future that never really was. The history of space ships that flew us to other worlds that were essentially our own, with a twist. Down in the tee vee dens where this all this took place, perhaps we were surrounded by the velvet kitsch paintings of twirling toreadors, sad clowns, or topless swingers that our parents brought home to pave the way forward to outer space. Or perhaps later it took place in the den of our own Velvet Underground, our own velvet revolution.

Nechvatal’s gallery calls these works the “ruins of postmodernism” and “a sort of sullied epicurean Hellenism simultaneously antediluvian and post-human.”  Hey, let’s hit the pool table after you mix me another drink, Baby Doll.  These days everyone wants to get naked in the art world, but sex and art has always been a hot button since the neo-classicals began painting “hot” pictures of Jesus and nymphs and satyrs getting it on. And of course in modern times the once shocking Dejeuner sur l’herbe, Manet’s ode to fresh paint was a healthy slap in the face. And just last month here in Paris, artist Deborah De Robertis showed off her private parts in front of Courbet’s Origin of the World at the Musée d’Orsay.

Nechvatal goes further. Although he keeps his own clothes on, he is stripping bare the bachelor and bachelorette in a more conscious attempt to address our anal comfort zones – our physical, social and intellectual rear positions. His work is more truthful, and way more insidious, than most.


MATTHEW ROSE is an artist and writer based in Paris, France. His most recent exhibition was The Letters at Converge Gallery, Williamsport, PA (July/Aug 2013).


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2 Responses to Letter From Paris: Joseph Nechvatal’s Velvet Love

  1. Pingback: JOSEPH NECHVATAL’S VELVET LOVE | The Hyper-Noise Aesthetics of an Exquisite Monster Sacré

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