Sweet Fred in Brooklyn

Tomaselli_Big_RavenFred Tomaselli: Sweet Leaf
Brooklyn Museum, NY

Through January 2, 2011

There is a wonderful scene in Pink Floyd's film version of The Wall where Bob Geldof, having ingested a significant quantity of everything, trashes his hotel room, carefully shaves his head (and, memorably, his eyebrows), and then proceeds to obsessively arrange the shards and fragments of the mayhem, as well as the surviving pills and drug paraphernalia, into patterns on the carpet. Fred Tomaselli has created a coherent body of collage works over the years, deploying an astounding array of painstakingly layered images embedded with an equally astounding array of drugs embedded in their resin surfaces. LSD, speed, aspirin, anti-depressants, Ecstasy, marijuana leaves, and psychedelic mushrooms are carefully aligned in patterns reminiscent of the psychedelic art of the 1960s, and also of the trashed-hotel-room-floor-sculpture of Mr. Geldoff.

Tomaselli has developed something of an audience for this work over the years. Many admirers note the labor-intensive qualities of his work, which harks back to the Pattern and Decoration movement; others are quite taken with seeing art made out of actual drugs. While Damien Hirst has also cast a veritable pharmacy of pills in resin in his sculpture, Tomaselli has attempted to elevate the medium to a pictorial art form, often with mixed results. In this show, his efforts have paid off and we are finally able to discern clarity of vision in the work, which may have been missing in the past.

One or two early works transcend the original formula (drugs arranged in a pattern, laminated in plastic) and possess a quiet resonance. "Untitled Rug" (1995) and "Black and White All Over" (1993) use the requisite caplets and leaves to mimic a Navajo rug and an Amish quilt, respectively. The juxtaposition of drugs and spirituality, and the relationships of the two, are perhaps obvious statements, but they show an underlying motif that Tomaselli has developed further in his work, with greater depth and subtlety than the early pieces reveal. Hanging near these two early pieces is "Night Music for Raptors" (2010), a simple depiction of an owl, made from hundreds of cut-out paper eyeballs. The title hunter, who hunts in the dark and is able to rotate his head, is perfectly depicted through the metaphor of the panoptic eye. There is a nod to the Italian proto- surrealist Arcimboldo in this piece as well, giving it a wonderful sense of art-historical nuance.

References to Islamic art, Op and Pop Art, Medieval decoration, and Audubon Style field guides abound, and are most effectively employed in works that have a darker edge. The rows of pills and cut-out photos of butterflies suggest something out of Buffalo Bill’s dungeon in The Silence of the Lambs, or from John Fowles's novel The Collector. The theme of beauty in stasis becomes a worn trope in the weaker of the works ("Field Guides," 2003), but dazzles and provokes in "Untitled (Expulsion)" (2000).

"Untitled (Expulsion)" is truly the standout work of the show, bringing together threads of Biblical lore in an updated style reminiscent of Bosch. Our Adam and Eve flee Eden, cast out by rays of dope, suggesting an ironic Eden as Opium Den. In the context of the Brooklyn Museum's collection of Bierstadts, Durans, and other Hudson River School artists, this updating of the Biblical Landscape is well timed and well placed, giving the painting an historical context.

It is particularly refreshing in this season (so far) of bombast and over-hyped installations to see the work of an artist dedicated to handcrafting precise, labor-intensive works on a small scale dealing with big, philosophical topics. Striving to make art about nature and transcendence is, apparently, still a relevant source, even if it requires a little "enhancement" in our modern times. - Bradley Rubenstein

dom

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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