A Fred Tomaselli Lecture

January 23rd, 2011 § 0 comments

Artists, with a few exceptions, don’t tend to have the type of cult following that various celebrities and rock stars have, outside of a few insular groups comprising mostly of other artists. While we know movie stars by their faces and names and not necessarily by their filmography, the artwork of artists is usually more recognizable than their name, let alone their face. It was therefore surprising to find such a dedicated turnout at the Brooklyn Museum on a cold Saturday night in November, for Fred Tomaselli’s explanatory gallery tour of his mid-career survey exhibited at the museum. Wandering through the show a few weeks prior to Tomaselli’s guided tour, I found as I typically do when looking at his paintings, that while his process is engaging, unique, and visually simulating, his subject matter remains boring, bizarre, and baffling with its birds, flowers, astrological designs, and neo-classical looking nude figures.

Hearing an explanation from any artist of their own artwork usually has one of two effects on their viewers: they either like the artist and therefore appreciate the insights into the work, or they don’t, and find the work more inaccessible then they did before they heard about its possible inspiration and intention. Anyone who went to art school or who attends artist lectures with some frequency knows that it’s possible, and evenly likely, to love an artist before hearing them speak and to dislike them after, and vise versa. We are swayed, perhaps more then we should be, by personality and explanations, and artists, like anyone else, usually make it easy for us to like or dislike their work. I can understand now the cult following that braved the weather to hear Tomaselli’s lecture, with his casual, easy-going personality, his west-coast humor, and his irreverent, hippiesque explanations.

It was not too long ago that, during a conversation with another artist, it was mentioned that, “no good art came really out of the 1990’s.” Terrified of such revisionist statements, there were of course some good artists who emerged during the decade, easy examples to prove otherwise are hard to think of off the top of my head. Twenty years seems too close to current contemporary art to be included in the canon of “important” artists we study at the tale end of the 20th century, but also too far from current contemporary art for many of those artists to still be exhibiting with prominent regularity. Fred Tomaselli’s paintings, however, began to gain recognition in the early 1990’s after he left the west coast of his childhood for the then sparsely populated artistic community in Williamsburg.

Beginning his talk as people crowded close in a tight semi-circle around him, Tomaselli referred to his work as striving for the “organic sublime,” referencing as inspiration the Hudson River School painters—whose romantic aesthetic dominated American painting in the 19th century—and talked about the now distant notion of “pure nature.” Though Tomaselli’s aesthetic interests are based on somewhat distant movements, he was greatly influenced by the culture of his time, and the place, southern California, where he grew up. Jokingly critical of Ronald Reagan and his “happy talk,” he described the state of the culture in the 1980’s as one of escapism.

“I was too young to be a hippie, but I was old enough to watch them crash and burn, as well as modernism into postmodernism.”

This explanation for his fascination with utopian-like atmospheres and landscapes gave his work a relevance I hadn’t seen before. Though his paintings look almost mythical or magic-realist, the paintings themselves are actually collages of found materials, applied in layer upon layer to the painting. “My work comes out of the garage,” Tomaselli said with a smile, “as much as from art school.” Encased in clear resin, like that found on the surfboards made in his garage—I am reminded here of John Steppling’s 1980s play The Shaper, and of the influence surfer culture had during the decade—you can find in Tomaselli’s paintings plants, cigarettes, prescription (and hallucinogenic) drugs, body parts exhumed from magazines. His collage materials are combined together to show how illusory our perfect landscape is, and what our reality is really made up of. Deep within his paintings apparent idealism hides a lurking dysfunction and cynicism. His figurative works, Tomaselli explained, are “riffing on the Renascence,” and are trying to visually “reconnect to paradise,” or perhaps in post-modernism terms to reconnect with only the notion of paradise.

Toward the end of his talk Tomaselli said, “the ambiguity of an object is its greatest power,” and there is certainly an ambiguous quality to his work, from the materiality of his so-called “paintings,” to the themes his collages depict. His work is pulled from the collective conscience of a specific generation, however, which is perhaps why it does not resonate as much as I’d like—instead of belonging within the realm of universal experience it has the time stamp of an American perspective from the 1980s and 90s. Like a recent Adrian Piper show I saw in Chelsea, where I spent more time wondering about life during her era than I did investigating or appreciating her work, Tomaselli’s paintings pull me into a frame of mind I don’t quite understand. Hearing him speak, however, did change my interest in his work in a favorable way, though I doubt it will ever move in me the gut reaction we want and expect of really good art.

His parting worlds, “the world is going to hell and I’m still painting,” seemed to be the most relevant comment to current art making that he made.

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