Is creating art that much different than creating a story about why people do what they do? Let me tell you about how I approached creating a story first ­ before I talk about creating my art.

As a cultural anthropologist, I traveled to Cali, Colombia to study the lives of those living in a squatter settlement ­ that was in the early 1970s. Some of the thinking at that time was that congregating of the urban poor would result in potential revolutionary movements ­ the spectre of communism. To me, that was fear-driven social science. I opted out of that conceptual model and focused more on the methodology of doing a small-scale social science (the focus of anthropology on small groups) in a large-scale society.

In a similar vein, I distrust the conceptual models that supposedly convert an artist's intent into "good" art. I prefer to see the aesthetic value of the image standing on its own ­ either it works or it doesn't; does it really matter what the artist intended the image to say or whether it captured some piece of his life on this earth? Maybe for historians and social scientists, but not to judge the merits of the image.

My point of view may lack syncronization with the views of critics, curators, and other artists. But it will help explain why my art reflects so many different styles. I am not beholden to any one style of presentation; rather, I am submerged within the process of experiencing the Other (call it God, spiritually, energy forces, or whatever the blooming buzzing confusion is that is the life that gives birth to us and ultimately consumes us.)

Take, for example, my borrowing (with permission) of a title from James Elkins' book, "The Object Stares Back, 1998." I adapted it to a title of a solo show, "Objects Staring Back." My artist narrative began as follows:

I open a book about art. I wonder if there is some wisdom, or perspective, about how I might think about the objects out there. Beyond style, technique and media, what is the connection between myself and the reality I see? I arrive at page 72 [of "The Object Stares Back"] and read:

The knife sees me: it gleams from the tabletop and says, "Pick me up." As in Alice in Wonderland, food seems to speak. A cookie looks at me with its single eye and whispers, "Eat me." And ultimately, objects all say one thing: "Look at me."

That view is troubling. Like walking in a darkened forest and thinking about all the night things watching me pass them by even the trees sense my presence. I read further at page 73:

[T]here is something creepy about this idea of objects staring back. Normally we are comforted by the exactly opposite impression. I am happy sitting in my living room because I know that the clutter of furniture around me is not a crowd of people staring at me and
that the easy chair I'm sitting in is not assessing my body to see if it approves.

I am not one to espouse paranoia. I may stumble over the easy chair, but I am reluctant to think the chair moved itself to be in my way. Everyday "objectivity" requires the separation of self and the "outside." Still, the figure- ground relationship between me and the "outside" is not all that certain as viewed and viewing, especially not when I think about IT as I create my images, dream about such things or otherwise take a moment to being attentive.

In the moment of art creation, and for you, in the moment of art appreciation, we can think about such things. How are we drawn into the image? Does it sing to us? What does it ask of us? What does it "think" when it sees us? The questions if we can attend to them as we look upon these images nvite us to reflect upon the engagement between the viewed and the viewer.

I come to the chapter called Blindness at page 201. I find this last chapter even more troubling than objects staring back, all the while agreeing with its basic truth. Even though we may engage with objects in a form of a dialogue of attentiveness, our vision is self-limiting.

[V]ision helps us to know what we are like: we watch versions of ourselves in people and objects, and by attending to them we adjust our sense of what we are. Because we cannot see what we do not understand or use or identify with, we see very little of the world only the small pieces that are useful and harmless. Each act of vision mingles seeing with not seeing, so that vision can become less a way of gathering information than avoiding it.

We know this. And that is why we sometimes stop to check on what it is we are attending to. Art in particular helps us; art is a place to stop by. A photograph, a picture, a sculpture, a dance, a song or drama each in its way helps us check on the other, the outside of us.

So, at that point, I turned from reflecting on the I-thou relationship in my artwork to speaking to the people walking by and chancing to look upon my art. "I hope that my images engage you, stare back at you and provide you a moment to check 'reality' at least until you walk out the door and slip back into the ordinary course of things."

That is one perspective I suggest in viewing my imagery. Do they engage you at some primeval level?

This is not to deny having a personal history. I was very engaged in geometric form and in cut-and-paste collage before turning to digital composition.

I've included my images from a three-man show ­ all of us being photo-manipulators, but with very different styles. I decided to meld my current experience with photography and photo-manipulation in Photoshop with my formative experience with collage. The set of serial images ­ titled, "Temptation's Anguish," has a core image with variations. Several of these were positioned around the core image in the show. However, as is my habit, I was not content to leave the subject lie with the images. I wanted to frame my intent (my personal statement) in an indirect fashion. I conjured up a critic who was writing decades in the future and reflecting back upon the present show. I also included some current text by JD Jarvis who has written about a digital aesthetic and the opportunity for rampant serial creations. And, yes, it was fun to indulge myself at the level of artist and of critic, especially as the audience chanced by. This was an opportunity for engaging the audience at a number of levels.

I've also thought about how to "teach" about digital composition in a rapid and direct way. Of course, a visual aid is critical to showing, and not just verbalizing, what digital composition involves. I developed a teaching poster that shows the various steps in creating "Sunflower," one of my signature images and the one I used in my show, "Objects Staring Back." The first image shows the original digital photograph. Okay as a group shot, but definitely not a winning photograph. The second image is a cropped version, which shows the deterioration of the image from a photorealistic point of view ­ just not enough pixels. The next image shows pixels at 1600% magnification. All of these are reference points. However, the ending point involves crushing pixels and using a number of tools in Photoshop. The final set of images shows the final image set in a variety of frames. I created this poster as part of a continuing education class that turned out to have individuals in their 70s and 80s who wanted to find out what they could do with their digital cameras. Public education is a very real part of the acceptance of digital art.

This engaging the audience at a number of levels has been important to me. As part of this multi-leveled enterprise, I've been engaged with the Digital Art Guild (primarily digital artists in San Diego, California). We have had some success in creating a physical community for digital artists ­ both in a series of local shows, in being recognized by the City Council of San Diego in a Proclamation in conjunction with SIGGRAPH 2003, and in collaborating with the Museum of the Living Artist ( in hosting a museum exhibition for digital fine art, scheduled for May 2006. Visit also our website:




Contemplation of Art





Train Ride

California Undocument #30F06

Vertical Perspective


Becoming & Being



Wid Night


Coming Back

Eye of the Beholder



When the Night becomes Day


A Meditation


Contemplating the 21s #30F1B



Face in Colored Petals


Village Sprite

(serial image set, 2004)


Images by Joe Nalven
Conceptual development by Joe Nalven and Miles Garrett ~ Movie development and production by Miles Garrett

Another Animation

Joe Nalven
14738, Shadowbrook CT
Poway, CA 92064