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Sing to me of the man, Muse,
the man of twists and turns,
driven time and again off course.
—Homer’s The Odyssey, Robert Fagles translation (1996)
Trouble resounds in the work of Joseph Nechvatal. Indeed, for an artist who has spent the better part of his career manipulating computer-generated viruses to wreak havoc on their image hosts, trouble inheres in the very means of production. But as with all of Nechvatal’s work — he is also a prolific writer (and Hyperallergic contributor), theorist, and sound artist — the element of agitation is twofold, serving as both agent of destruction and vehicle for transformation.
So it is fitting that with his latest show at Galerie Richard, Odyssey pandemOnium: a migrational metaphor, Nechvatal turns his viral paradigm to “the man of twists and turns”: Homer’s cunning hero whose very name means trouble. But the story of Odysseus and his epically tumultuous voyage is only a point of departure; the loss and longing of anyone who has ever been displaced or set adrift are the ultimate subjects here. Fraught with tension and achingly beautiful, the show presents a powerful and, given the timeliness of the subject, hopeful metaphor for the perennially human search for home.
In the 10 works on view — all of them digital paintings on a luscious velour ground oriented vertically to suggest portals — muted images of Odysseus and his mythic cohorts hover, apparition-like, in luminous fields of color. Earthy umbers, fleshy pinks, and grays evocative of aged stone predominate, all imbued with a watery softness. Throughout, ambiguous forms resembling neural networks, fragments of illegible text, and X-rays of human viscera morph and merge, seamlessly interweaving with the figures and faces. Further underscoring the themes of agony and tension, the densely layered images are punctuated by bright orthogonal bands that bisect the picture plane at various intervals. Pervading all, there is “noise” — visual evidence of the virus’s effects on the palimpsestic images. Fractured, tumultuous, and resolutely complex, the paintings nonetheless exude uncanny, womb-like warmth.
Those left behind loom large in any migrant’s story, and here the suffering of Telemachus and Penelope is a recurring motif. In “vexed telemachus in agOny” (all works 2014), the visage of the anguished son, obscured by skeins of dentrite-like filaments, is just barely visible. Framed on three sides by narrow bars of color and further occluded by veils of milky pigment, Telemachus is imprisoned, his despair palpable. In “vexed telemachus adrift” and “drifting telemachus,” large horizontal bands of deep black become gaping voids resonant with loss.
But it is Penelope who anchors the show. Presiding over the gallery’s back wall, “penelOpe pandemOnium” features a classically posed female figure obscured by an explosive field of visual noise that shifts from pink to blue. A single ultramarine band cuts vertically down one side. The most dramatic piece in the show, it is also the richest. For here what we see is one image of Penelope 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. Evoking both dissolution and becoming, the piece is a powerful reminder of the inextricable link between death and birth. Old identities must die for new ones to emerge.
In a year that has witnessed the most dramatic migrant crisis we’ve seen in our lifetimes, it is difficult not to read this show as a response to current events. But in a larger sense, we are all migrants. In a culture both ideologically and spiritually adrift, suspended between a bankrupt and moribund modernity and we know not what, we are all at sea. Given the current climate of endgame rhetoric, part of what makes Nechvatal so singular and so compelling is his refusal to settle for any of it. Instead, what he offers is hope that out of the cauldron of upheaval will eventually emerge new forms and new ways of being as yet unimaginable. The return to The Odyssey as a way of exploring these themes makes this show particularly poignant. It is, after all, a tale of homecoming. Worn and weary, trouble does return home, he and all of Ithaca irrevocably transformed.