Fred Tomaselli, Mar. 4, 2014, gouache on ink-jet print, 10 1/2 × 11 3/4". From the series “The Times,” 2005–.

Fred Tomaselli, Mar. 4, 2014, gouache on ink-jet print, 10 1/2 × 11 3/4". From the series “The Times,” 2005–.

Fred Tomaselli

White Cube | Hoxton Square

Fred Tomaselli, Mar. 4, 2014, gouache on ink-jet print, 10 1/2 × 11 3/4". From the series “The Times,” 2005–.

If reading the news these days just makes you want to get away from it all, then Fred Tomaselli’s hallucinatory alterations to front pages of the New York Times promise to offer at least a temporary fix. Painted and collaged directly onto the page or an enlarged, digitally generated facsimile of it, his manipulated illustrations transport you from the Gray Lady’s sober reporting to a more enhanced, dreamlike, and, in many instances, more enchanting place where typical journalism has been radically reenvisioned: Villains are ridiculed (e.g., Donald Trump and Mitt Romney ensnared together in one larval structure [Mar. 4, 2016], or Vladimir Putin stuck in a nude woman’s body amid an army of balaclava-wearing Pussy Rioters [Mar. 4, 2014]). Victims are shielded from voyeurs (as in a work in which a mourning woman’s face is covered by flowers sprouting from her folded hands [Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 2016]), and the world reveals itself in brighter colors and with an exhilarating profusion of detail.

Throughout his career, Tomaselli has evoked altered states of consciousness to explore the different utopian and dystopian directions such states can take. This work ranges from his theme-park-inspired early installations of the 1980s to subsequent psychedelic paintings and collages with actual pills suspended in epoxy resin, and with pop-cultural and art-historical references to an aesthetics of escape and transcendence, from William Blake to non-Western art and ornamental traditions. Beyond his leftist commentary on individual news items in the “Times” series, 2005–, Tomaselli himself has likened the broader politics of his work to Joan Miró’s “Constellations,” 1940–41, a series of beautiful cosmic gouache paintings made amid the horror of World War II. Thus, in Tomaselli’s works from “The Times,” the headlines do not simply recede from perception like a bad illusion. Instead, the cosmic imagery is framed by references to reality, so that the work reads as a broader conceptual reflection on realism and escapism. He deploys his psychedelic aesthetic only so as to ultimately invite reflection on the cultures of escape that have been his subject since the 1980s. For Tomaselli, escapism is not a viable option, nor is a critique of reality satisfying without some level of transcendence.

In Tomaselli’s show “Paper,” the “Times” series was shown alongside other recent collages and photograms, among them Chemical Celestial Portraits, Times Arrow Version,2014, in which the artist diagrammed the taxonomies of its subjects’ self-declared drug use against astrological charts, and “Bloom,” 2011–, in which swirling psychedelic patterns are superimposed on photographic prints of plant leaves. All of these works explore possibilities for transcendent experiences, whether through drugs or nature, but without reference to the inescapable social realities that are so crucial to “The Times.” That series has expanded significantly since Tomaselli spontaneously started scribbling on the pages of the eponymous newspaper during the second Bush administration to express his anger at its support for the Iraq War. More than a decade later, in the current culture of post-truth politics, the artist’s continued commitment to reading and responding to the New York Times takes on its own significance. But this commitment by the self-described “news junkie” also raises further questions about realism and escapism. Could it be that news addiction is a form of escapism in its own right? And if the media, art, nature, and drugs are all forms of escape, then how do we locate the real?

Elisa Schaar