Hallucinogenic plants, layers of paint, photo collage, Tums and OxyContin, resin, fig leaves. Brooklyn-based, California-bred artist Fred Tomaselli subsumes all these materials into grandiose canvases spanning topics as diverse as Darwinism, Adam and Eve, narcotics, and contemporary politics. Over 40 of them are currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum in “Fred Tomaselli,” a mid-career survey of the artist’s two-dimensional works dating from the late 1980s to the present. The works, including collages and paintings created specifically for the show, trace a rough outline of Tomaselli’s career beginning with early photograms and collages and ending with recent paintings and prints fusing abstraction with current events.
The latter, comprising the final section of the exhibition, are playful newer works that use covers of the New York Times as backgrounds for the artist’s gouaches, rendered in bright colors and lucid shapes that contrast sharply with the severe, black-and-white columns and boxes of the newspaper. For these, Tomaselli scanned covers from the Times, printed them on watercolor paper, and painted over the main photo in gouache. The topics in these new works are more explicit than his earlier paintings; in one, titled March 26, 2009, the artist’s cartoon-like waves wash over collaged photos of tents. The original caption reads, “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday that a homeless encampment in Sacramento would be moved.”
Yet, for me, the standouts are the larger, earlier works. Often five feet square or larger, these lush paintings teem with colonies of seemingly microscopic life. On closer inspection, the organisms reveal themselves as pills, leaves, drugs, and images of plants, flowers, birds, and anatomical illustrations meticulously cut from books or reproduced from the internet and assembled by the hundreds.
In Doppler Effect in Blue, 2002, chains of leaves, pills, flowers, and human hands and ears – strung together like ribbons or beads – swirl over a deep blue acrylic background on wood panel. Elsewhere, giant birds are collaged from tiny images of flowers or bird appendages and human figures comprise thousands of miniscule facial features, limbs, and human organs that dissolve into torrents of butterflies. One of the most striking of these alive, luxurious canvases is 2010’s Night Music for Raptors, a collage of eyes assembled in concentric circles to form an owl, its piercing eyes staring back at the viewer with a gaze that echoes outward like a droplet hitting water.
All this is enclosed under layers of clear epoxy resin. As Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times review, “With their glassy surfaces, they are like windows into the mind of someone in a state of visionary rapture.” Johnson is right: the bulk of Tomaselli’s work is rapturous, decadent, dense, and lush. Pills and clippings become jewels and threads in a rich tapestry of life. Sure, drug references abound, and there’s a potent mix of influences: hallucinogenics, Gustave Klimt, mysticism, and even the luxurious decorative utopias of medieval European and classic Islamic painting.
Naysayers argue that an unsuccessful ambiguity stems from Tomaselli straddling cliché drug/political references and aesthetic indulgence in an often dark beauty. Are his works meant as critical commentary on our drug-laden society or as romantic escapism into visual pleasure? Are they just plain creepy – and is creepiness bad in art? Despite this tension, which in my opinion only adds to the intrigue, it seems to me the artist has chosen a side. Make love not war. Proof? It’s hard not to swoon when faced with ten feet of Tomaselli’s dazzling decadence. These canvases are alive, and life includes ambiguity.
On view at the Brooklyn Museum through January 2, 2011; (718) 638-5000; http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/.