New York

Fred Tomaselli

Jack Tilton Gallery

Over the past several years, Fred Tomaselli has introduced otherworldly, mind-altering experiences into his art, transporting the viewer far from the mundanities of conscious perception. In his installations these effects are often achieved by transforming the exhibition space into an alien environment where the spectator travels through space and time as if into a parallel universe. His paintings create a sense of distance by mixing traditional abstract patterning with an arsenal of prescription and nonprescription drugs that hold out the promise of psychological transcendence. Tomaselli’s art offers an escape bracketed by art’s artifice and which, like a false promise, is incapable of ever being sustained.

In Cubic Sky, 1987 (reinstalled last winter at Josh Baer Gallery), six cubes, beaded with pinpoints of light, were suspended from the ceiling of a darkened room that seemed to extend into infinity. These celestial bodies hovered above eye-level like discrete universes. The viewer was able to walk around them and inspect their framed, rectilinear structures. Their finite boundaries and measurable distance from one another produced a sense of spatial and temporal displacement that inspired delusions of grandeur, feelings of omniscience, and the desire to contemplate the transcendent on the part of the spectator.

Tomaselli’s exhibition, “New Paintings,” presented a pictorially and chemically diverse blend of prescriptive and recreational drugs that beckoned the viewer to travel along the psychoactive border between independence and dependence. In these works, capsules and tablets, inset in a thick casing of transparent resin, are set afloat on wavering Op art lines, abstract star-burst patterns, and against wheels like those seen by Ezekiel. A pointillist arrangement of white saccharine tablets punctuates the midnight-blue surface of Bombogenisis, 1992, while pink, red, and striped antihistamines gather in clusters around varied polygonal shapes crafted with marijuana leaves. These flat, abstract designs set against the dark ground create a deep recessive space much like that suggested by Cubic Sky. While the initial visual effect may yield an impression of wonderful, bursting patterns of color, upon close inspection each type of drug is identifiable right down to the serial number. Presented as if in a natural history vitrine, the pills and marijuana leaves float in suspended animation, fully visible in their gravity-free casing. The viewer may peer at them (with or without wanton eyes), yet these licit and illicit drugs are ultimately as forbidden as their alchemical promise of physical transcendence remains unreachable.

In Desert Incident, 1992, a similar galaxy of marijuana leaves, antacids, and other “assorted drugs” suggests the twinkling of van Gogh’s The Starry Night, 1889, cast in the guise of a desert twilight. While the possibility for multiple readings is maintained in these materially conspicuous, yet enigmatic compositions, one must eventually cast aside specific references to van Gogh’s galactic insanity, or Carlos Castanda’s hallucinogenic tales from the Mexican desert. Tomaselli’s paintings are more about the restrictions with which our daily lives are fraught. His works suggest that perhaps somewhere along the border of art and its revolutionary tradition, one can still find pockets of liberation, no matter how small.

Kirby Gookin