By TANEY RONIGER, FEB. 2017
On first encountering Joseph Nechvatal’s penelOpe pandemOnium, it is the ecstatic sensuousness of the field that initially seduces. Across the painting’s luscious velour ground, its looming verticality beckoning like a portal, skeins of dendrite-like filaments roil and writhe amid a dense, vaguely amniotic surround. Underneath, ambiguous forms in fleshy pinks, deep crimsons, luminous magentas, and blues evocative of the sea morph and merge, all seamlessly interweaving. Oceanic and exultant, it is a world we slip into with ease. But tensions quickly become palpable. On the left, a single ultramarine band cuts vertically down the picture plane, its razor-like precision in violent contrast to the soothing fluidity. And what of Penelope, the work’s titular heroine – anguished wife of Odysseus, she who is left behind? The more one lingers the more fraught and foreboding the painting becomes. How to reconcile the exquisite beauty of the field with the elements of agon?
Conflicting forces are a formidable presence in all of Nechvatal’s work. Indeed, for an artist who has spent the better part of his career manipulating computer-generated viruses to wreak havoc on their image hosts, conflict inheres in the very means of production. Unleashing his viral algorithms on photograph-based images from his database, Nechvatal creates by way of destruction, allowing the cascades of randomness to enact their drama on his subjects. What results, above all, is a profusion of noise: visual evidence of the virus’s effects on the palimpsestic images. But for Nechvatal, the element of agitation is always twofold, serving as both agent of destruction and vehicle for transformation.
Like the complex process by which they are created, Nechvatal’s paintings unfold in time. Entering further into Penelope’s world, what seemed at first a field of abstract forms slowly resolves into a discernible figure. Hovering, apparition-like, in the center of the canvas, it is a female nude in semi-recline, her dark eyes cast downward as she turns toward the viewer. So subtle is Penelope’s presence, and so stirring is the moment of her recognition, that in apprehending her form we feel we are not so much before her image as inside her psychic space – an agonized space charged with longing and loss. But it is also a space of eternal renewal. What one gradually discerns is that beneath the explosive field of noise one image of Penelope is being virally annihilated while another – a copy of the same – emerges, inchoate, underneath. One imagines that in the fictive space of the painting there are infinitely many Penelopes, each one only an ontological possibility until the one above it is destroyed.
Dissolution and becoming, death and birth: in evoking both at once, the painting is a poignant reminder of their fundamental interdependence. New forms, new identities, and new ways of being can only emerge if old ones die first. Like all of Nechvatal’s work, penelOpe pandemOnium is a testament to the generative power of disruption and destruction. But given its subject, it is also a statement of hope in dark times. Penelope, after all, is the embodiment of perseverance; only because of her wits and cunning does Odysseus return to an unbroken home.
Taney Roniger is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, New York.view all articles from this author