Fred Tomaselli's Natural Illusions

10/12/2010 4:00 AM |

Sitting in Fred Tomaselli's comfortable but modest Williamsburg studio two weeks before his Brooklyn Museum exhibition opens, surrounded by boxes as he and a long-time studio assistant prepare for a move to Bushwick, the 54-year-old artist becomes contemplative. "I've been in Williamsburg for 25 years, this studio for 20," he recalls, balancing a scale model of the exhibition space in his lap. "Every piece in the show was created in this studio, I think," he hesitates, "yeah, that's right."

A little later I ask him how it feels to be having a retrospective, if the idea of looking back and taking stock makes him uneasy at all. "It's not really a retrospective," he points out, "aren't they calling it a 'survey'?" I check my notes. Yes, the partly chronological, partly thematic mid-career survey features some four dozen works from 1990 to 2010. "Between this exhibition and moving studios," Tomaselli admits, "it does feel like the start of a new chapter, although how that might be reflected in my work is unclear." I offer that maybe the new, presumably larger Bushwick studio might allow or inspire him to create even bigger pieces. "I don't want to make works that are too large," he cautions, "because people need to get right up to the work and see the details, see how different objects and paints are layered, and they can't do that if the pieces are too tall." He continues: "Already, 'Big Stack,' the largest piece in the exhibition, is ten feet tall, and that can be overwhelming."

Indeed, by the time viewers encounter that totemic 2009 collage of speakers and amps against a starry sky in the last room of Tomaselli's Brooklyn Museum exhibition (through January 2), its relative material straightforwardness comes as a welcome counterpoint to the dazzling play of layers and perspectives that precedes it. The L.A.-born artist's trademark style could be described as a cross between Arcimboldo and Voltron, with abstract, human and avian images assembled out of seemingly infinite collections of objects and images, and paints embedded in layers of clear epoxy resin. From a distance the pieces appear shiny and flat, but gain surprising material depth as one approaches. Alluding to the resin's common use for building boards in the surfing community where he grew up, he likens his works to transporting, quasi-vehicular devices.

The exhibition simultaneously proposes and problematizes a journey from abstraction in the early-90s towards the increasingly ornate figurative works of the last seven years. Tomaselli knowingly placed his most recent resin work in the show as a collapsing of that development. In "Night Music for Raptors" (2010), a pattern of rings ripples outward from two circles, each concentric line made up of paints and bird eyes cut from magazines and field guides, forming the silhouette of an owl. It hearkens back to one of the earliest resin pieces presented, "Black and White All Over" (1993), in which pills of various sorts, from aspirin to acetaminophen, create an abstracted pattern that coalesces into a Vasarelyan illusion of depth. A few other abstract resin pieces and smaller constellation paintings—in which information like bands Tomaselli saw perform or various drugs are arranged and connected like stars in a chart—fill the exhibition's first section.

Whereas some of these early works deal strictly with pills—a kind of readymade unit of color like a pointillist's paint daub updated for self-medicating Americans—natural forms seep into Tomaselli's compositions and his aesthetic comes into full bloom. "When I first did a collage with marijuana leaves," he remembers, "which I grew myself, it opened the work up to a whole new range of possibilities. Suddenly I realized I could incorporate all kinds of natural elements." As the exhibition continues, subject matter moves from pill-based abstraction to a room full of landscapes and human figures, and culminates in the room filled with more recent bird collages. Throughout, this tension between natural and man-made forms becomes more extreme. In one of his most dazzling pieces, "Avian Flower Serpent" (2006), a purple, red and gold eagle, its various parts made up of collages of pictures of bird parts, sits on a branch with a snake (similarly assembled from snake photos) in its talons. The surrounding foliage comes in every shape, size and color. Amidst all the painted leaves Tomaselli incorporates actual parts of plants that can only be discerned from their handmade proxies on close inspection.

I ask him how nature functions in his work. "We have such a distorted relationship to the environment," he observes, "our idea of reconnecting with nature is going on a hike dressed like cyborgs. I want to make people question the reality of what they're seeing by blurring that distinction." He continues: "It's only after we'd killed everything, after we tamed the wilderness, that nature became part of the national narrative with people like Thoreau and Emerson; before that the forest was a terrifying place." A series of small field guide-like collages on paper underline his comments about America's outdoor leisure culture, with a selection of bird types whose bold plumages, on closer inspection, consist of camping gear. This tension between nature and culture resonates throughout the exhibition, from the large-scale Biblical scene "Untitled (Expulsion)" (2000) and the early desert view with mysterious pill hieroglyphs "Ocotillo Nocturne" (1993), to the very materials he uses like clippings, gouache and acrylic paints, homegrown plants and the glossy transparent polymer in which they're embedded. Like a mad botanist petrifying prized plants in chemical coffins. Many other questions come to mind—the symbolic functions of various birds and plants, the competing influences of East and West Coast styles and sensibilities, the artist as obsessive-compulsive collector—but those issues are still very much at play in Tomaselli's latest work. And besides, it's not a career-capping retrospective, just a really good survey.

(images courtesy Fred Tomaselli, James Cohan Gallery)