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Joe Nalven: Art | Anthropology

In Art, Feature, Interview on January 25, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Reimagining Innocent

I came across the artwork of Joe Nalven when I happened upon a website which he co-founded.  That site, Digital Art Guild, was brought into being “not to create a bureaucracy, but rather a platform which would further the individual artist’s growth and opportunities for exhibiting”, says Nalven, with the added importance of “reaching out to the wider public to broaden the understanding of digital art.”

Much like myself and other artists who are not just painters and sculptors, but also engineers, writers, photographers, architects, scientists, and the like–a phenomena I describe as TADAE–Nalven employs his background in anthropology to facilitate a rather curious narrative of imagery and media, juxtaposing indigenous subject matter and its associated diaspora with ephemera inspired graphics and painterly, digital layering.

Nalven,  who, with JD Jarvis, authored the book Going Digital: The Practice and Vision of Digital Artists, is the former Associate Director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.  He has exhibited in SIGGRAPH, and is currently an Adjunct Instructor of Anthropology at San Diego City College.


Art | Anthropology

An interview with Joe Nalven

by Max Eternity


Max Eternity (ME):  Hi Joe, welcome to AD Mag

Joe Nalven (JN):  Good to be here.

ME:  Over the last few weeks we’ve had the chance to exchange many email correspondences, but you first caught my eye when I came across the Digital Art Guild (DAG) website.  Are you the founder of that organization?

JN:  We grew out of the San Diego Photoshop Users Group looking for something more than keeping up with the latest technology and techniques — we wanted a framework for exhibiting our art.  And yes, I am one of the founding members.

ME:  How long has DAG been around, and what’s its mission?

JN:  We started in 2003 and got an added push when SIGGRAPH, the granddaddy of computer generated graphics organizations, came to San Diego. It inspired us to put on an exhibit, Fusion, and to cross-promote with the SIGGRAPH Art Gallery.

Our mission was not to create a bureaucracy, but rather a platform which would further the individual artist’s growth and opportunities for exhibiting. We also saw the importance of reaching out to the wider public to broaden the understanding of digital art.

ME:  I’m aware that you are the moderator for some other online groups, relating to art and digital technology?

JN:  I was invited to become a co-moderator of the Yahoo DigitalFineArt Group that was started, and still owned, by Harald Johnson. He’s done an excellent job in providing resources for digital printing including his book, Mastering Digital Printing. That dovetailed with the more focused Yahoo DigitalArtGuild, which we set up for guild members, done as a way for us to have internal communication. Our outward facing self was the webzine that has seen more than seventy articles about digital art.  Both the online groups and the webzine are important for keeping in touch with each other, as well as outreach to the public.

And of course, [since] art intersects politics, I set up another Yahoo group called ArtPolitics. This is a smaller group, but we do get the opportunity to butt heads while we search for areas of compromise. Or sometimes just to deepen discussions on such hot topics as nudity, censorship, conspiracies, global warming, religion and all those fun topics.

Nalven Studio (website homepage  screenshot)

ME:  So, give us a bit of background.  Where did you grow up and how long have you had an interest in art?

JN: I grew up in Brooklyn in one of the early housing projects built in the 1940s. Because my dad went to NYU in theatre arts, we had an interesting mix of working class dynamics and being aware of classic culture, while enjoying the emergence of rock’n’roll. That was the time that Joseph Papp developed free Shakespeare productions in New York’s Central Park. Imagine seeing extraordinary actors such James Earl Jones, George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, for free. Just line up early.

On my mother’s side, we celebrated our Ukrainian heritage and went to see the Moiseyev Dance Troupe and other American folk artists. So my interest in art was definitely part of my home life.

When I went to Brooklyn Technical High School, I received the didactic part of the arts− skill building in drafting, foundry, carpentry, machine shop, and printing. That was the craft side that complemented the more enthusiastic side of what art does for an audience.

I suppose my attempts to blend the mix of life experiences at a personal level, not to mention what was going on in the wider society with the impact of TV on pop culture, the psychic and real wars going on, from the War on Poverty to the Vietnam War, became part of my cut-and-paste collage art. This juxtaposition of realities was part and parcel of the postmodern zeitgeist.

Book cover image for Going Digital: The Practice and Vision of Digital Artists by Joe Nalven and JD Jarvis

ME:  Were you an artist, in the traditional sense, prior to the emergence of virtual art applications — digital art tools?

JN:  Apart from my learning the craft of making things in high school and continuing my personal interest in collage making, I didn’t have an academic schooling in the arts. Not with a professional mentor and not in a college art curriculum. I spent my after school hours perfecting my skill in foil fencing culminating in winning the NCAA Individual Foil Championship in 1965. I suppose one might say, tongue-in-cheek, was that I was developing another side of those fine motor skills.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s, I still recall receiving a swift kick in the rear from the owner of a service bureau. He had been scaling up my miniature collages and putting them on foam core boards when he said, “Joe, you’re the artist. You need to learn Photoshop.”  So I did [and] that was when I began my adventure in digital art making.


ME:  I’d like to turn the discussion now to your portfolio of work.  At the website you have images divided various categories:  Rethinking Portraiture, Embellishment, Structures and Motion and Pause.  There’s a wide range of subject matter, but let’s start with a piece from your Motion and Pause gallery.  I’d like to ask about a black and white, multiple-exposure photograph, of a person leaping and dancing about.  What’s the title of that piece and what’s the dance about?

JN:  Ahh, yes, Jumps. What does one do when there is nothing left to do? A random act at first, then multiplied in a variety of ways. Taken individually, I might have a series of separate images − Jump 1, Jump 2, etc. But why not put them altogether in the same image and then invert the image? The first challenge is taking interesting photographs; the second challenge is image editing or post-processing. In this image, I turned to collaging the jumping figure in an artful way against a bland backdrop. If there were too much going on behind the jumping figure, the image would likely have lost its punch. There’s no real reason for the dance, but like a child playing, we try to extend the moment of fun.

“Forest People”

ME:  In the Embellishment gallery there are two images that caught my attention.  The first entitled Forest People seems to tie into your background in anthropology?

JN: You are right about the connection. It is not a literal connection, just something one would imagine in some ethnography (if one were an anthropologist) or some fairyland place (if one were an artist).  I was photographing all sorts of images in Israel. In this case, there were head-scarved women. I had an extra piece of metal, longish and so I measured it out and considered how I might fill it with these women. I needed to distort one of the figures, which worked to my advantage as I blended in some wispy tall grass. My head and heart was not in the moment of a literal representation. So much the better in this case.


ME:  And of the second image, which kinda looks like a mummy of sorts, could you talk about that piece?

JN: Blur. I took a photograph. It was rather blurry and had some weird artifacts in it. Sometimes, the experimentation leads to an idea that is worth pursuing. Sometimes, not. In this case, the weird drool and the slits for eyes bridge the normal expectation of a face with something that might just be random lines. It is a disturbing puzzle with little help of becoming calm with the red/orange/yellow hues offset with the black/brown eyes, lips and drool. I am occasionally fascinated by the mania and craziness of life and would put this image into that sensibility.


ME:  You do quite a lot with photography, but not all of your work looks capture-based.  Some pieces are more painterly, while others resemble collage?  Take for instance Stargazer, which is a figural abstraction.  The texture of the piece looks kind of rough and random, but the coloring is rather delicate.

JN: You are correct in the spectrum of styles I find myself in at any one moment. In Stargazer, I wanted to do more with the portrait/photograph. I was at the beginning of my experimentation with patinas on metal. It occurred to me that I could create a template of color textures by dripping and dropping patinas onto brushed aluminum  and letting it bake in the sun. In this particular experiment, I decided to take a photograph of the dried metal patinas and then use it as a layer in Photoshop in tandem with the portrait. The puzzle was how to integrate these two images in a less than obvious representational way. Once I had that integration, I could print it on paper and face-mount it to plexi or go back to a metal. There is an ongoing dialogue and process in the creative endeavor. I might mention that there was an earlier integration of portrait and ivy on a wall. I pared back the face to such an extent that some viewers did not see the face, but only the ivy. Another psychological trick of the mind.

“Blue Sky”

ME:  Now in the Structures gallery there’s an image, which I think is a photograph.  However, to me it looks like an Ed Ruscha painting—a sort of pop-ish, illustrative rendering of an iconic architectural landscape.  I have a great love for sculptural buildings, as you know, but is that what this image is about, architecture as sculpture, or something else?

JN:  One of my problems or mind traps comes from going to a technical high school with many years of drafting, including architectural drawing, mechanical drawing, industrial design. Seems like too much geometry at times. Then again, that kind of spare linear composition has a definite appeal. So, this image harkens back to that frame of mind.

I was wandering around an office complex on a Sunday. I looked at the reflected interaction of these buildings and later, in Photoshop, I began to intensify colors and and clarify the structural elements (remove unwanted elements, remove posterized areas). I didn’t transform the original photograph so much as intensifying various elements within it.

“Yad Vashem”

ME:  And if you will, tell me about Yad Vashem.

JN: That’s the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. No photographs are allowed inside, but outside looking in, is acceptable. But that turned out to be the stronger image.  Some distance from the glass and steel and concrete structure was needed. The reflections and triangular shape of the building formed the compositional lines, but since I started with a digital infrared image, the color adventure was along different lines than one normally anticipates with a visible light camera (that is the normal camera for most, but I have to distinguish it in my mind and database whether my original images are with one camera or the other). So even if one took the exact same picture at the exact same time of day from the exact same location with the exact same focal length, the starting point would seem very different with different optical wavelengths. Just one more experiment to work on; just one more adventure in finding a zone.

ME:  In a prior email exchange you shared with me a few images that I haven’t seen online.  Nevertheless, I’d like to ask about some of those, because they touch on one of my own theories about digital-aged art.  I’m talking about what I call Ethno Electro and Negro Electro.  These are words that I use, but more than the semantics of those words, the idea that I’m getting at is to describe digital works that have a over-riding narrative of indigenous peoples, much like the piece you did called “Totem Web.”  That’s a great title, using totem—an indigenous term, and web—formerly a natural term, now a digital term as well.  Tell me about this piece.


JN:  Whoopps. I created a bit of confusion here which I need to sort out first.  We have our various ways of cataloging our imagery. In my case, I want to distinguish fairly quickly if an image is a higher resolution one appropriate for printing or one that is web-optimized. In this case, the web at the end of the image title Totem is my shorthand for a lower resolution image. Sorry for the confusion, but in a way, you’ve added to how one might think about this image. Something I hadn’t anticipated.

I had the opportunity of traveling along the Alaskan coast and in Vancouver. The modern totem poles are very colorful and dramatic, but these images are too well defined to reinterpret.  The contemporary artist has made his statement and a photo of it would simply document another artist’s work. However, going back in time is possible, especially where the paints have disappeared and the wood has been eroded, leaving a whisper of what must have originally been a very dramatic sculptural object. The narrative of genealogy − of animal totem and clan  − have been muted as well, especially to those unfamiliar with insider understandings. For me, I was among the untutored in the insider meanings of these totemic structures, but they spoke to me. A landscape photographer or artist might find his or her fascination in the flow of color and arrangement of flora; I found my fascination in these seeming bland objects.

These photographs became a resource to intensify at one level, to add some real person eyes and lips (hopefully subtly) and odd splotches of color. Since this  image was mounted on metal, the aluminum substrate with patinas served to provide the color. This becomes a mixed media object; if I print it again, it will be different since the substrate will be prepared with a different flow of patinas.

Your own imagery, Ethno Electro and Negro Electro, has that same power for me. Actually, it reminds me of the Mud People Kachinas. All of these draw on that magico-religious power that served to cement society to the unknown. We have a Star Wars ‘Let the force be with you’ analog to that frame of mind or in Avatar with the Navi’s connection to Eywa. But the reality of band- and tribal life was a hard life − no electricity, no Wal-Mart, no cars; that’s hard for most modern folks to imagine. And yet that was the reality of 99.5% of the human experience. Those magico-religious connections help focus attention on getting by in a scary world. But that’s another story.

ME:  And last, but certainly not least, could you talk about World Identity.  This is definitely one of my favorite works, combining photography with digital painting that’s been layered with numerical values, all superimposed over a graph paper-like grid.  It’s rustic and naturalistic, but clearly digital and futuristic as well.  And again, you provide a great title.  What’s the story there?

JN:  I was responding to a call for art for the 2007 SIGGRAPH Conference. The theme was Global Eyes and asked the submitting artists to consider the various social forces affecting world society, including immigration. I had previously played with creating identity cards and saw this as an opportunity of revisiting that presentation of various selves. I created a template that included Mercator map lines and a series of numbers to represent a DNA sequence. That represented the big picture (the world) and the small picture (our DNA). The missing piece that would clinch the identity card was the person’s image. You are quite right about this first World Identity Card. I spent quite a bit of time working the photograph that it eventually became a painting. The other examples, three of them got into the SIGGRAPH Art Gallery that year, were not as embellished as this one became.

It does serve to rethink who we are. Are we that person on our driver’s license or passport or library card? Or are we that person on some future World Identity Card?

“World Identity Card 1”

ME:  Great work Joe.

JN:    I don’t often step back and appreciate the making real of what comes and goes in my imagination.

ME:  Thank you for your time.

JN:    And be well.


Learn more about Joe Nalven here and here

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