Viruses usually are thought of as destructive.

In the human body, viruses can make you sick or even kill you. In a computer, a virus can wreck your hard drive or delete volumes of important information.

When he started learning about computer viruses, Joseph Nechvatal wondered if something good could come from them. He’s spent almost two decades proving that viruses can help create art.

Nechvatal’s aesthetic — which is shown in an exhibit at the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown — evolved from his drawings and paintings in the age of Reaganism. The Soviet Union was still around and people felt the threat of nuclear annihilation. The emergence of MTV and cable news stations barraged viewers with information they had never had access to before.

His works were dense landscapes of overlapping lines. He wanted them to feel chaotic, and for the figurative images — sometimes traced out of magazines — to be shrouded by the chaos.

Nechvatal, 55, who lives in New York and Paris, started using computers in 1987, during a residency in Knoxville, Tenn. He found he could manipulate his images with computers, a metaphorical reflection of his belief that people are manipulated by the images they see.

The computers helped him make his images even more dense than they already were.

“These paintings, the more you live with them, the more you discover in them,” he said, contrasting his work to the clear, simple images of Pop Art.

Another residency in Arbois, France, in the early ’90s had an equally explosive effect on his art.

The Chicago native was working at the Louis Pasteur Atelier under a program where artists were brought in to interact with local people to create new work. Because of Pasteur’s connection with Arbois, Nechvatal wanted to create work that had some connection to the famous scientist, who made important discoveries about the behavior and control of bacteria and prevention of disease.

He settled on computer viruses as a metaphor for Pasteur and the then-newly emerging AIDS virus, which was killing off friends and loved ones.

Viruses also gave him a chance to add randomness and chance to his works, something he enjoyed about the art of Marcel Duchamp and the music of John Cage, who had no desire to strictly control the presentation and interpretation of their works.

Nechvatal, who teaches at the New York School of Visual Arts, elicited the help of computer scientist Jean-Philip Masonie to create viruses.

“I’m not a marvelous programmer, myself,” he said. “I enter into collaborative processes with other people and they show me the tools with which to experiment.”

In 1999, Nechvatal started working with Stéphane Sikora, a collaboration that continues.

Nechvatal sets parameters for the viruses, then sets them loose. The viruses can “eat” colors, leaving behind different colors and patterns. Sometimes they obliterate the image they have just eaten; sometimes they don’t.

He also works with artificial life, in which viruses act as they would if they were in nature. In some cases, a virus “mocks” the rules he has set, he said.

The viruses reproduce and continue working until they run out of “food,” or until Nechvatal tells them to stop.

Nechvatal compiles collages of dense images — superimposed and manipulated photographs, paintings and drawings created by himself or others — before scanning them into a computer and unleashing a virus.

Once an image is complete, he has it printed with acrylic paint on canvas, and calls the finished works “computer-robotic assisted paintings.”

Nechvatal stressed that he is fully in control of what he creates. He sets the parameters for the viruses, creates the environments in which they work and decides when a work is finished.

“I was never going to surrender my artistic will to any (expletive) machine,” he said. “I was going to use and master the machine.”

Art without human control is bad art, he said.

To remind viewers of a human touch, Nechvatal frequently inserts a stripe. Barnet Newman was famous for such stripes, which symbolize sublime man or the presence of man.

The Butler show is in two parts. One gallery displays large paintings, and a second exhibits projected portraits of friends and people Nechvatal admires as the images are attacked by his viruses. The portraits change frequently, and the viruses act differently each time.

In two of the projected images, viruses also create sounds as they work.

Nechvatal’s show will be up through April 23. Info: 1-330-743-1711 and online:

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