Tomaselliís Untitled (Expulsion).
Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College, through
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
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.