headlines | about |

Michelle A. Tavano on Joseph Nechvatal


hermapOrnOlOgy OvOid maxismhermapOrnOlOgy OvOid maxism


Michelle A. Tavano

A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Master of Arts
with a concentration in Media Studies
in the Department of Art
The School of Arts and Sciences
Rhode Island College

JOSEPH NECHVATAL ......... page 26

Joseph Nechvatal
Joseph Nechvatal, founder of the Computer Virus Project, has been utilizing technology to make art since 1986. Nechvatal describes his paintings as computer-robotic assisted acrylics on canvas created with a virus-like computer program. Nechvatal works with a programmer who creates a virus within the computer. The files are then transferred to a computer-driven robotic machine, which paints with a brush onto canvas. Originally trained as a performance artist and painter, Nechvatal’s work focuses on the “aesthetic sensations linked to concepts of technology, a mental prosthetic. And the function of this prosthetic art is to create by extenuation different technological-aesthetic percepts.”(Popper 3) Patterns and color saturation are key elements in Nechvatal’s paintings, which are directly created and/or influenced by the behavior of the virus. The energy of the virus directly affects the tonality and luminosity of the final image. As a digital artist, Nechvatal believes technology enables the artist to have more freedom than traditional painting, architecture or sculpture. He is interested in how the artist is able to utilize technology in a challenging manner. “It’s by violating the traditional limitations that art and technology have heretofore defined themselves that there is room to really run.” (Pocock 52) The paintings created by Nechvatal each take on their own set of moods through the happenstance of colors, contrasts, highlights and saturation of color, which are created by the virus-like program altering and transforming the image. The characteristics of Nechvatal’s paintings are ambiguously and androgynously sexually themed. As the computer virus continues to attack the image, its ambiguity becomes stronger.

Figure 1 Joseph Nechvatal, Orgiastic abattoir, 2003,
computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas, 44” x 66”.
image used with artist’s permission

Nechvatal’s painting titled, Orgiastic abattoir (Figure 1) is part of a exhibition titled Aventures Virales (Viral Adventures ) and is considered a “virtual hermaprodite” as images of testicles, ovaries, female breasts and buttocks of both males and females are manipulated with a computer virus. The saturation of red, yellow and magenta are presented as an opaque layer of color on top of a transparent layer of flesh tones. Beneath the flesh tone layer is yet another layer of brown tones. It is unclear whether the two round shapes at the top of the composition represent male or female sexual body parts.

Figure 2 Joseph Nechvatal, voluptuary droid décolletage, 2001,
computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas, 66” x 120”.
image used with artist’s permission

In voluptuary droid décolletage (Figure 2) the layers of color placed upon each other create a texture throughout the composition. The painting is divided into four sections from left to right. The first section of various hues of blue appears pixilated, representative of a virus eating away at the forms depicted. The second section, a vertical yellow stripe, divides the painting with a strong emphasis. In the third section, a voluptuous woman is lying with her backside in view. The right section of the painting contains purples, blues, greens and dark reds, which seem to represent veins in the human body. Nechvatal blurs the line between male and female throughout his paintings, which is evident in voluptuary droid décolletage also.

Figure 3 Joseph Nechvatal, debauched tissue exstasis, 2002,
computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas, 77” x 51”.
image used with artist’s permission

In debauched tissue exstasis (Figure 3) there are once again representations of breasts, testicles, buttocks and ovaries, but they are placed within a grid. (Nechvatal, “Voluptuous” 2) There is a vivid rectangle of bright red and blue placed horizontally across the painting dividing the composition. As I view this painting, I become more and more curious as to what lies beneath the surface of color. The transparency of colors in this painting gives a sense of depth between the background and the foreground.

Figure 4 Joseph Nechvatal, hermapOrnOlOgy OvOid maxism 2002, computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas, 44” x 88.5”.
image used with artist’s permission

Similarly, hermapOrnOlOgy OvOid maxism (Figure 4) presents the viewer with a composition enhanced with transparent colors. The two oval shapes in the center of the painting are just close enough to touch one another, but just far enough away from one another as to not invade each other’s space. The reference to male and female reproductive organs is not as evident in this painting as it is in many of his other paintings. However, that is what makes this painting so interesting – its abstract quality leaves me wanting look further as I want to learn more about what is being depicted. The colors in each section of Nechvatal’s painting are strong enough to stand on their own and form their own composition. The androgyny of the subject matter in Nechvatal’s paintings lends itself to a world of possibilities. Nechvatal attempts to imitate the decay within our world (foot note) with respect to the human body as he utilizes a computer virus to attack his paintings. “The hybrid image suggests an androgyny… which depicts transmutation as a universal principle driving the nature of the world.” (Paul 57-58) The outcome is out of his control, as is the case when a virus such as AIDS or cancer attacks the human body. Intriguing and mysterious, Nechvatal feels that he able to successfully express himself as a digital artist. (Nechvatal, Email Interview)

foot note : Nechvatal writes about how he attempts to imitate the decay in the world through his images in an article which can be accessed at the website Eye With Wings :

Joseph Nechvatal Email Interview
By Michelle Tavano
February 8, 2010

Michelle Tavano: Your paintings are created by a robot via a computer virus, which influences the outcome of the image. How do you maintain a personal connection with your paintings as your hand is not holding the paintbrush used to create the brushstroke?

Joseph Nechvatal: My personal connection is maintained in the decisions and aesthetic choices I make.

MT: Your art is heavily influenced by the AIDS virus and its emotional connection/influence in your life. Do you feel that your paintings reflect how you envision the AIDS virus to look visually?

JN: No. The work is metaphoric. Not illustration. Using C++ framework, I and my programmer Stephane Sikora have brought my early computer virus project into the realm of artificial life(A-Life) (i.e. into a synthetic system that exhibits behaviors characteristic of natural living systems). With Computer Virus Project 2.0, elements of artificial life have bee introduced in that viruses are modeled to be automonomous agents living in/off the image. The project simulates a population of active viruses functioning as an analogy of a viral biological system. Among the different techniques used here are models that result from embodied artificial intelligence and the paradigm of genetic programming.

MT: What is the one thing you would like your students to learn from you as an artist?

JN: My hope is that they learn to love art and love to learn about it and trust their urges about it.

MT: What artists have you been most influence by?

JN: Marcel Duchamp

MT: Do you feel that digital painting enables you to express yourself effectively as compared to traditional painting?

JN: My- yes. Today I think the logo representational paradigm is being replaced by the new one based dynamic systems, connectionism, situatedness, embodiedness, etc. – connectionism replacing congnitivism and symbolic models; emergentist, dynamic and evolutionary models eliminating reasoning on explicit representations and planning; neuroscience eliminating cognitive processing; situatedness, reactivity, cultural constructivism eliminating general concepts, context independent abstractions, idealtypical models. Emerging is a new “synthetic” paradigm: a paradigm that puts together, in a principled and non eclectic way, cognition and emergence, information processing and self-organisation, reactivity and intentionality, situatedness and planning, etc.

MT: Should your art be exhibited in a traditional gallery or an online gallery? Which do you pefer? How and is the piece different in each gallery?

JN: My preference is to show the actual canvases in real space and light.

MT: What do you enjoy about working in digital painting as your primary medium?

JN: In my case, I was lead to programming through my involvement with art. I had a very minor interest in programming way back when I was in college (my brother was into it) and I even studied fortran there – but art was – and is – my first and last passion. I came hard to computers in general through the interest in ideology and power that I was researching in the 80s with my drawings and photo-mechanical blowups of the drawings.