Fred Tomaselli: Art with substance(s)
August 14, 2009
ASPEN – Fred Tomaselli is a big thinker, and lots of those big thoughts make their way from his head to his art. In the current exhibition of his work at the Aspen Art Museum, an ambitious mid-career survey of work spanning two decades and the upstairs and downstairs galleries at the museum, the pieces explore such topics as the pastoral ideal; drugs, both pharmaceutical and recreational; agrarian separatist movements in America; artificiality; and the 53-year-old’s personal biography. When Tomaselli talks about his work, the conversation assumes from the get-go a certain level of knowledge about art and other topics on the part of the listener: He brings up significant differences between modernism and pre-modernism, Kant’s notion of “the terrible sublime,” and how the Italian futurists were co-opted by Mussolini.
All of which sailed over my head with no danger at any time of making contact. But here is what I love about Tomaselli and his art: None of that matters at all.
When he says, far later in our talk, that “art is primarily a visual medium,” he means it, and his work backs him up. Tomaselli’s work is a feast intended for the eyes, and it’s possible to get lost in a single one of his bigger, more complex pieces without once reflecting on the political or historical concerns Tomaselli might have had in creating them. There is enough of the visual – dimension, color, tricks on the eye, composition – to push the intellectual aside.
The exhibit – organized by the Aspen Art Museum and curated by museum director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson – features 40 pieces, most of which are on the large-scale and complicated side, and can seem like an answer to those who have complained that, under Zuckerman Jacobson, the museum has favored conceptual art over the visually stunning. (One museum visitor wondered if this past’s springs failed referendum on building a new museum on public land would have won if Tomaselli, who was honored with the Aspen Art Museum’s 2009 Aspen Award for Art last week, was being exhibited on Election Day.)
Tomaselli has lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn for 25 years – long enough by far, points out Zuckerman Jacobsen, to predate the neighborhood’s status as a cultural hotbed. But he was born and raised in Los Angeles, and it is the L.A. concept of escapism – embodied by Hollywood, and even more so for Tomaselli, Disneyland – that remains the foundation of his art.
Of his L.A. upbringing, Tomaselli says, “When I saw my first real waterfall, I couldn’t believe there weren’t conduits and pumps making it go. It made me think the real was the strangest thing there is. I tend to see nature through a scrim of technology and politics. The first time I visited Yosemite, I saw it through a scrim of Ansel Adams photographs.”
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An ideal example of playing with this idea – perhaps even poking fun at himself – is the 2003 piece “Grackles and Meadowlarks,” which from a distance looks like a standard ornithological field guide, but is actually made of cut-out pieces of catalogues for outdoors-oriented companies. On closer inspection, the bird figures are photos of synthetic materials – a double removal from nature.
Tomaselli graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a degree in painting and drawing, and his early-career efforts were with paint. But he abandoned the medium fairly quickly, and turned to installations based on the idea of theme parks – “about artificial immersive environments, about escapism,” he said. “Giving the viewer an escapist experience.”
For any child of the ’60s, escapism would almost inevitably lead to at least a cursory exploration of drugs. Tomaselli, however, made a full-body immersion. Reflecting on modernism – which he says was winding down just at the time he was charting what would become his career path – Tomaselli saw that the pre-modern ideal of “being able to lose yourself in the world the artist created” had been lost in the modernist notion of self-awareness. He saw drugs as a facilitator in that process of losing oneself. Tomaselli began making two-dimensional works that prominently featured pills.
“I was thinking about how paintings can alter consciousness. I found an apt metaphor with pills,” said Tomaselli, who says he was an angry punk-rocker in his younger days (a past that is highlighted in his 1990 piece, “All the Bands I Can Remember Seeing and All the Extinct Vertebrates in North America Since 1492”). “But instead of going through the bloodstream, they were entering through your eyes. It’s just a different route to the brain, a different way to alter perception. I thought that was funny, but also honest.
“There’s this idea that all art alters perception. You enter the space of the picture and are swept away into that world and taken out of your world. That seemed uncannily similar to my experiences with LSD. Though art wasn’t as radical.” From pills, it was a short leap to marijuana leaves. Both substances, as well as LSD and other psychoactive materials, are used extensively in the work that makes up the current exhibit.
Tomaselli finds additional levels of meaning in his use of drugs as an art tool. There is the political: His brother was wrongly identified as a pot dealer, and Tomaselli has publicly pointed out the absurdity of the war on drugs. And there is the social, with drugs representing the ultimately failed promises of the ’60s counter-culture.
“This whole utopian idea of the ’60s, that descended into disco and cocaine – I started looking at the rubble of the ’60s, because that’s all there was,” said Tomaselli. “I wanted to see if there was anything worth retrieving.”
What Tomaselli held onto was the experience that hallucinogenic drugs could provide – the possibility that there are gateways that open to bigger worlds, universes that can be overwhelming and terrifying, but at the same time, enlightening and expansive.
“Kant talked of ‘the terrible sublime,’ how diminishing it is to the individual. You want to die in this horrible beauty,” said Tomaselli. “That was uncannily like tripping on psychedelics. If you took enough.”
He brings up the Stendahl syndrome, traced back to the 19th-century French author, who described as an illness the reaction – dizziness, even hallucinations – caused by exposure to sufficiently powerful art. “It’s this idea of quaking in front of beauty,” said Tomaselli. “It’s a big thing to arrive at in art, but I felt it was something I was trying to do.”
In Tomaselli’s work, however, the terror has been largely rubbed away, in favor of something that fascinates with beauty, and even humor. It’s another dimension, but one that is easy to handle. “If you’re always in a comfort zone, you can’t access these other realms. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable,” said Zuckerman Jacobson. “Fred’s work makes that place of uncomfortableness so pleasurable, visually. That’s one of his gifts. He allows you to enjoy the ride.”
Tomaselli’s work has had one effect on this viewer, something I could call an addiction: Over the past two weeks, I have been drawn again and again to the museum to see the exhibition. I have gotten lost in the wildly imaginative pieces “Field Guides” and “Hang Over,” discovering another angle to each one every time I look.
“I like keeping people a little off balance,” said Tomaselli, “letting them wonder what they’re looking at. In my work, everything becomes psychoactive. Hopefully. I’m forming a mind-altering experience for the viewer.”