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Eruption: Tomaselliís Untitled (Expulsion).

Perceiving the Sublime

By Nadine Wasserman

Fred Tomaselli

Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College, through June 6

The arrival of spring is always accompanied by a symphony of birdsong. It is hard not to feel optimistic on a sunny spring morning when you hear their twitters and chirps. Birds are everywhere in Fred Tomaselliís work. Not only because he is an amateur birder, but because they have always been associated symbolically with the sky and otherworldliness. At the entrance to the Tomaselli exhibition are four small colorful works on paper depicting groupings of birds. You could easily walk past them, but donít. At first glance they appear to be pages from a birding book, but something is clearly different. With his keen eye and meticulous technique, Tomaselli has used collage to replace the birdsí plumage with cropped images of parkas. Instead of yellow and orange feathers, his orioles, for example, sport a range of colorful nylon and zippers. Despite their bright colors, these pieces are more understated than his better-known workóbut they set the stage for this survey show that includes a sampling of Tomaselliís early works.

Layering is Tomaselliís forte. While the smaller works at the entrance give a taste of his visual dexterity, it is works like Avian Flower Serpent, Untitled (Expulsion), and Echo, Wow and Flutter that show his true abilities. These large pieces are stunning. They are elaborate and baroque and demonstrate his innovative, signature style of layering pills, plants and images clipped from books and magazines under highly polished resin.

To really understand the complexity of Tomaselliís work, it is necessary to look both at a distance and up close. Step back, and Echo, Wow and Flutter is a kaleidoscopic frenzy of abstract tangled loops. Up close it is strings of flowers, insects, eyes, hands, birds, and pills. Tomaselli is at his best when he uses bits of reality to enhance abstraction. His interest in optical play is apparent throughout the exhibition and his early pieces shed light on his trajectory towards more elaborate work.

In one of the earliest works in the show, Black and White All Over, Tomaselli lined up differently sized white pills into columns. Embedded in resin, the columns undulate against a black ground, mimicking an op art style. Tomaselli is well-known for using synthetic drugs and psychotropic plants in his work and much has been written about it. But to focus on the drugs alone is to miss entirely his aesthetic inquiry. His pills, poppies, and hemp leaves are part and parcel of his greater quest to examine alternative perception, transcendence and allegory. What this exhibition makes clear is that Tomaselli has a visual language that resonates throughout his career and it has deepened and grown more complex with time.

The beauty of a survey show is to see how and where connections exist throughout an artistís oeuvre. Here we can see a direct aesthetic relationship between early pieces like Black and White All Over and the black-and-white non- figurative photogram portraits that depict their subjects as constellations of white dots. The white pills of the former echo the white orbs of the latter, which contain star-like circles each representing the legal and illegal substances that the subject remembers taking in his or her lifetime. But the aesthetic and thematic relationships are not limited to proximity in time. The patterns of the constellations are mirrored in later works such as Desert Bloom and Leo and the strings of dots and pills in these later works appear throughout the exhibition. While some early works are minimal, others are more ornate. Pieces like Super Plant and Untitled (Rug) are studies in ornamentation that mix organic and inorganic materials. And while much of Tomaselliís work is abstract, he never fully abandons traditional landscape. Red Butte, Multiple Landscape, and Ocotillo Nocturne all incorporate non-abstract images such as mountains, trees, or desert flora.

Tomaselli has also included human figures in his work and there are a few examples here. The best of these is Untitled (Expulsion) in which Adam and Eve, based on those painted by Masaccio, are banished from the garden. Here the garden is represented by a mandala bursting forth with organic matter and pills. Tomaselli uses similar mandala-type forms in works such as Dead Eyed Bird Blast, Airborne Event, and Millennium Phosphene Bloom. These are contemplations on transformation, death, and transcendence that evoke both beauty and pain. Tomaselliís fascination with the sublime grew out of his interest in alternate realities and escapism. What began as experimentation with actual pharmaceuticals has morphed into a life-long exploration of perception and a study of the natural world.

While his early experiments in sculpture and installation are not included here, the exhibition makes clear that Tomaselli has continued to explore similar themes throughout his career. The exhibition, which was slightly larger at the Aspen Art Museum, next travels to the Brooklyn Museum, near where Tomaselli lives. Since much of the plant material that the artist uses in his work comes from his Brooklyn garden, this is a very appropriate venue, and it will be interesting to see how a larger institution will choose to install the work.


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