New York

Fred Tomaselli

James Cohan Gallery / Christine Burgin

An encyclopedia of fantastical beings, the bestiary has an allegorical or moralizing purpose, classifying physical deviance and offering metaphysical counsel as well as presenting an orderly compendium of psychedelic effects. In other words, the bestiary is what Fred Tomaselli composes under the aegis of painting. Tomaselli isn’t exactly a painter, though he does paint, with a delicate, illustrator's hand. His work’s wildness derives from its collaged elements: flowers, birds, hands, and eyes, all made of paper; glued-on pills, insects, and leaves of cannabis. Encased in layers of resin, pulsing with colorful detail, Tomaselli’s images recount tales in which the moral injunction is to balance indulgence with distance—to get off, but to retain a measure of skepticism.

The artist’s recent show at James Cohan, an extravagant affair of sixteen collages and drawings, ran concurrently with a smaller but related exhibition of a collaborative book piece at Christine Burgin. The works are beguilingly pretty. Hidden in these retinal confections are markers of debauchery, dismemberment, dystopia, and decay, but their candy colors and shiny acrylics seduce so frankly that the viewer greedily absorbs each nasty shock. The surfaces shimmer with garlands cut out of seed catalogues and jewel-like eyes excised from fashion spreads; there are bright chains of painted dots, spangles of pills in graduated sizes, precisely aligned starbursts of marijuana leaves. In Untitled, 2000, a dazzling pill-and-pot whirlwind expels Adam and Eve from the garden in a hail of collaged flowers, insects, body parts, and, of course, snakes. The figures are lifted from Masaccio’s fifteenth-century Brancacci Chapel, but their features are erased, their outlines filled with networks of red veins. In Natural Selection, 2000, real beech leaves are collaged into a tree shape set against a crazy quilt of colored squares (actually swatches taken from outerwear catalogues like J.Crew and Land’s End). Birds cut out of field guides roost in the beech branches, as if “nature” could only be known through “selections” from advertisements. The underlying references—to art historical iconography and American crafts, to narcotics and consumer culture, to any number of paradises lost—seem all the more sinister for being so lusciously packaged.

For such an exuberantly visual thinker, Tomaselli has an unexpected obsession with textuality. For Phrase Book, 2000, a limited-edition artist’s book made in collaboration with novelist Rick Moody, Tomaselli made nine original prints and two versions of an inlaid slipcase. The show at Christine Burgin included this project along with two shelves of dog-eared favorites culled from the participants’ respective libraries. Among Tomaselli’s choices were Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet and (Guide to) Hallucinogenic Plants as well as volumes by Nabokov, Pynchon, and Burroughs; these selections jibed with Moody’s editions of Genet, Beckett, Low-Level Radioactive Waste: A Citizen’s Guide, and The Complete Paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. There were bibliographic references uptown too: The cannibalized atlases and magazines suggested another kind of library, while works like Utopia Mountains, 1998, and Desert Bloom, 2000, cited the literature on American crackpot-visionaries from Thoreau and the Shakers to Ted Kaczynski and the Manson Family.

In this pharmacopoeia of ideas there are uppers and downers. The flip side of decadent gullibility remains healthy skepticism, and Tomaselli cautions us to offset our intake of one with judicious doses of the other. Such subtle advocacy for moderation keeps the work sharp, allowing it to address big themes like madness, desire, and beauty without becoming cloying. Tomaselli’s artistic practice models the balance of obsession and irony, and it's fun to imagine him in his studio, surrounded by piles of mail-order catalogues, gluesticks, and baggies of drugs, painstakingly assembling a world.

Frances Richard