The Beautiful, Beguiling Art of Fred Tomaselli
by Joan Moossy

The initial impact of the beauty of Fred Tomaselli’s work is startling, but the trip has hardly begun. At first glance, from a distance, it appears that Mr. Tomaselli has done some exquisitely beautiful abstract paintings. A closer look starts the questions. Is this even a painting? The images are dense and lush. You are being happily seduced into participation. Double takes will go on throughout the experience, and a sense of humor pervades. It takes a while to see everything. I’m not sure you ever could. You realize that your nose is practically touching the work. Just as you are about to walk away, you see something that you totally missed during what you thought was a careful, meticulous examination. Just as you think you have it figured out, Fred Tomaselli fools you again.

The elements used to make up the images range from cutouts of photographs to three-dimensional objects, including his most infamous ingredients, drugs. He uses everything from over-the-counter medications like aspirin to pharmaceuticals and cannabis leaves. He even paints drugs. Many of his pieces are done on wood panels and encased in resin, which is how he can use three dimensional objects while having a finished piece that hangs like a painting.

His decorative use of drugs has been controversial, even resulting once in the confiscation of all his work at the border in France. It was returned without any type of hearing when the customs officials presumably accepted Tomaselli’s contention that these drugs are meant to be and can only be ingested through the eyes. Despite having been encased in resin, the drugs are still potent and have a distinct effect on the viewer. Parallels are drawn between art and drugs and both are seen as transportation mediums and windows into another consciousness.

Untitled, 2000 is one of works done on wood and encased in resin. It is huge and has a remarkable sense of depth. In the upper left corner is the center from which it all explodes. Coming from that center are bands of pot leaves each painted with an elongated red shape, lines of pills increasing in size as they move out, and cutouts of photographs of flowers, mouths, insects, and butterflies. In the lower right hand corner are a man and woman painted with maps of their bloodstreams and their brains showing through their skin. The man has his head in his hands and the woman has her hands shielding her breasts and genitals. Banished from the Garden of Eden for eating from the fruit of knowledge, they stand on a bottom border of painted grass and real leaves done in a style evocative of Henri Rousseau.

Cadium Phosphene Swirl, 2000 is a bright psychedelic painting with blue shapes outlined in electric blue and overlaid with electric pink spirals and swirls. Medallions made from marijuana leaves arranged in a circle, with pills, and cutouts of hands and eyes as the centers, dance randomly on the radiating surface. This one buzzes and vibrates as the viewer is drawn to examine the medallions.

I already feel that I say "Wow" too much, but I gave myself permission when viewing Echo, Wow, and Flutter, 2000, a piece dense with garlands of objects. Looking like necklaces, leis, and daisy chains complexly hung and overhung, Tomaselli again uses flat cutouts of photos, this time of flowers, hands, insects, and birds, some cut from field guides, as well as pills and hemp leaves. He also paints garlands of pills and rings of fire on the surface.

The technique that Tomaselli uses to create these works is fascinating in itself. He begins with a panel of wood, which he paints black. He glues the first layer of objects to the board and paints whatever will be on the back surface. Then he builds a dam around the edges of the wood panel and pours the resin. It has a slow drying time, which gives him the opportunity to spread it evenly. If there are more layers, he does it again. Finally he sands and buffs the surface, then sometimes paints on that.

From the pieces being shown at the James Cohan Gallery in New York City through mid-January 2001, I can see that Tomaselli also has an interest in maps and the concept of mapping. Some of the work like Double Map, 2000 and Map, 2000 are actually painted on maps. Embellished Portrait of Kathe, 1995-2000 is an example of his own mapping. Here he documents an individual’s drug history in a constellation based on their astrological sign with the stars replaced by the drugs and labeled with the drug names. At the top is Kathe’s birthdate. Tomaselli’s interpretation of what constitutes drug use is broad, so he asks the subject of the portrait to include everything they can remember from sugar and chocolate to LSD, from aspirin and caffeine to marijuana. This piece is described as "gouache, prismcolor on unique photogram." Besides the paintings, the resin pieces, and the photograms, this exhibit also contains iris prints, a digital C-print, and a collaboration with writer Rick Moody, screenwriter of the movie Ice Storm, called Phrase Book and Sleeve, 2000. This is a limited edition piece with only 150 published by the Whitney Museum of American Art. The book, with text by Rick Moody and illustrations by Fred Tomaselli, slides into the side of a small piece with tiny insects and butterflies emanating out from the center.

The Whitney owns several of Mr. Tomaselli’s works as does the Art Institute of Chicago. His work has been auctioned at Christie’s and shown at the Museum of Modern Art, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, and many other prestigious museums and galleries around the world. He has exhibitions coming up at White Cube in London in May 2001, the Cuenca Biennial in Ecuador in December 2001, and the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Florida in December 2001.

The only way to get beyond a conceptual appreciation of Fred Tomaselli’s work is to see it live. I guarantee an art high you’ll never forget.

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