New York

Fred Tomaselli

Fred Tomaselli’s intensely detailed and disquieting mixed-media collages could be considered a redress of the brightly colored, paisley-strewn, and generally utopic art of the ’60s and ’70s. In Us and Them, 2003, Adam and Eve reach for the bough of a bird-laden tree; the archetypal couple has been meticulously assembled out of anatomy illustrations and body parts cut from photos, which have then been laid against a dark background and covered with a thick layer of clear acrylic. The cluster of penises on Adam and the many breasts and buttocks on Eve betray the influence of Indian devotional art, with its multiple-armed and -eyed figures. Indeed, Tomaselli’s works appear to illustrate a visionary or ecstatic state that’s an alloy of Western mythic tropes, the psychedelic experience, and Eastern religious insight.

In Cyclopticon 2, 2003, a severed head hovers fire-limned and openmouthed against empty space, bloody sinew dripping from its neck, rays of photocollaged flowers and human ears, mouths, noses, and eyes extending halo-like all the way to the edge of the work. We peer into the meat and tissue of this entity, watching as its thoughts and dreams, represented by tiny, carefully painted stars or flowers, issue from organ and viscera. These shapes are painted on top of the thick acrylic layer; the effect is a sort of cubism that extends beyond the physical to account for the numinous—which, for Tomaselli, entails terror as much as wonder.

Destroyer, 2003, confronts us with what looks like the underbelly of some prehistoric crustacean as it slithers up from the tendrils of flame at the work’s bottom border. As with Tomaselli’s other creatures, cutout human facial features constitute its anatomy—e.g., a plecostomus-like mouth that one readily imagines sucking and grinding and whose creepy viciousness is accented by the fact that the photographed human features that make it up look so antiseptic and commercial-perfect. Most of this trilobite’s myriad appendages have obviously been assembled from pictures of bodybuilders and models; their disembodied smiles seem all the more carnivorous for their straight white teeth and perfect lips. Here the artist reveals cosmetic “artificiality” as a preternatural and annihilating expression of our image-obsessed culture.

Gender is a significant theme for Tomaselli, and he explores it in terms that but for the vibrancy of the work might seem clichéd. While male figures are typically comprised of gut and tendon, females have a distinctly more florid constitution. Airborne Event, 2003, depicts a female figure, legs made up largely of flowers, torso a snake wrapping around an iris, head replaced by a pattern of geometric shapes: kaleidoscopically arranged birds, flowers, butterflies, mushrooms, larvae, spiders, and those ubiquitous cut-out eyes. Here the creaturely aspect of being is celebrated with a scintillating and explosive energy.

A markedly less eerie work is Field Guides, 2003, in which we see a man hoeing the ground, harnessed to soil by technology, trailing a vast paisley of butterflies that dwindles behind distant trees. The dichotomy of artificial and natural is a rich one for Tomaselli, as the contrast between the works’ acrylic coat and the photographic imagery of actual flora, fauna, and flesh makes clear. The refined seems but an extension of the feral, and entirely reliant on it. As Field Guides intimates, we remain, for all our inventiveness and effort, heirs to death as much as life, to toil and eventual consumption. Summoned in this darkly vatic work is something like the first moment of consciousness as imagined by philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Neumann: a vivid and terrible vision of life eating itself.

Tom Breidenbach