Worth the Trip: Fred Tomaselli lands in Brooklyn
In the week that Tomaselli’s traveling exhibition, organized by the Aspen Art Museum and The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, arrives at the Brooklyn Museum we represent Eric Gelber’s review of the show at the Tang this summer.
February 6th to June 6th 2010
The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College
815 North Broadway
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866-1632
October 8, 2010 to January 2, 2011
The Brooklyn Museum
Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing, 5th Floor
200 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, (718) 638-5000
In the late 1960s Alan Watts, the British philosopher and writer who introduced many Westerners to the tenets of Eastern Philosophy, experimented with psychedelic drugs. He noted the four main characteristics of his experiences ingesting cannabis, LSD, and psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and one of them stood out when I was looking at Fred Tomaselli’s work. What Watts calls an “awareness of relativity” is present throughout the paintings/collages in this exhibition. Tomaselli does not deal with individual entities in his work. He deals with the chain of being. Single figures are constructed out of a multiplicity of body parts, and repetitions of various types of organic life and manufactured chemical substances cohere into imaginary shapes and lines of energy. Microscopic and celestial forms commingle and the outside and inside of the human body is depicted simultaneously. For Tomaselli there are no boundaries between interiority and exteriority.
The inclusion of real objects such as hemp leaves, a large variety of pills and capsules, magic mushrooms, saccharine tablets, and carefully trimmed photographic material, injects an element of the real into these two dimensional images, and for those viewers who have used any of the illicit drugs Tomaselli includes in his work, the drug taking experience, which includes the transformation or deformation of the senses, is recalled in an intense way. Like all great art should do, drugs like cannabis, LSD, and psilocybin, can make us see things differently in a permanent sense. In Tomaselli’s painting Expulsion (2000), which includes direct references to Masaccio’s fresco, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Tomaselli imagines the godhead as a magic mushroom cap. In the painting psilocybin is the creator of worlds, or taxonomies. We see a magic mushroom/sun/god shape with linear beams shooting out of it in all directions. The energy or light beams consist of a wild assortment of human body parts, pills, flora and fauna, insects, leaves, and birds. Tomaselli, like in much of his work, seamlessly blends human anatomy and nature as well as the products of industrial processes. Small individual units coalesce into an abstract energy or entity. This transformation of individual units into larger gestalts is a good metaphor for the painting process.
Whether or not Tomaselli still smokes pot or takes ‘shrooms is irrelevant. His paintings are about the transformation of reality through the imagination, and the imagination relies on the orderly and rational process of creating taxonomies and the intuitive process of discovering ideas and forms through the working process. So these paintings are not designs, or planned beforehand. They all include the backdrop of the void or death or entropy, depending on your world view. This is manifested in the ever present black backgrounds. These are reminders that the energy of the universe fluctuates, flickers, is reborn and snuffed out over and over again.
Life as multiplicity, or the blending of all into one, is dramatically portrayed in paintings such asFungi and Flowers (2002) and Field Guides (2003). The human figures in these paintings consist of profuse and varied body parts, insects, and floral forms. Body parts are interchangeable; a heel of a foot is really a clenched hand. There are multiple versions of every body part. So the individual literally contains multitudes. In Tomaselli’s map paintings, such as Desert Bloom (2000), we have a bird’s eye view of an imaginary terrain. Recognizable architectural forms are spread throughout the composition, barns, churches, homes, but the surface of these familiar objects are placed on is fractal like, psychedelically colored, or spider web like. Tomaselli is juxtaposing the familiar with the visionary in a seamless fashion, utilizing the omniscient bird’s eye view. The contrasting perspectival views used in these map paintings, the architectural forms are depicted as if the viewer was seeing them on the ground plane and the abstract landscape they are placed on is flat and portrayed in bird’s eye view, is disorienting. Tomaselli’s work celebrates the creative aspects of being disoriented.
Tomaselli’s linear abstractions are quintessential Maximalist paintings. They combine human and nature, and they are incredibly busy. In paintings such as Echo, Wow, and Flutter (2000), swirling, overlapping lines, consisting of an assortment of eyes and hands and leaves, various pharmaceuticals, flowers, insects, and painted images of bugs and butterflies and shapes that mimic pill and capsule shapes turn in on one another in endless repetitions of elliptical movements. The lines and the shapes they form and contain suggest events that take place beyond the visible spectrum. Like all of Tomaselli’s work they engage the viewer’s eyes and brain in different ways when they are looked at up close and from a distance.
His painting technique is very tight and detailed. It is all in the wrist. There are no large gestures or expressionist brushwork. It relates just as much to the art of pin-striping as it does to the meticulous brushwork found in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The painterly passages that get embedded in between layers of resin are fragmented and spread across the painting surface in an asymmetrical way. Tomaselli intentionally tries to confuse our perceptions of painted and collage forms, and this underscores the notion that perceptions can be deceiving. But instead of just pointing out the subjectivity of our sense perceptions he celebrates the generative powers of looking.