The resulting hyper-busy images, "a flip-flop between representation and abstraction," Tomaselli calls them, are sent bounding over the top by acknowledgment of their essential medium. That medium is drugs, pure and simple. Encased inside each of Tomaselli's thickly resinated "rectangles of utopia" it's possible to find anything from prosaic aspirin to perfectly serrated leaves of wacky weed to an overdose of the prescription drug Darvocet. Thrown together in dazzlingly colorful, often representative arrangements, the pills, capsules, tablets and leaves float about in suspended animation together with less controversial elements, like pictures of exotic birds clipped from field guides and bright-hued acrylic paint. Reminders of that extra acid tab not taken, Tomaselli's painting-cum-assemblages hint heavily at transcendence while poking a sharp elbow into the ribs of Deadheads and Emersonians everywhere.
Brought up among the picture-perfect fakery of the California suburbs, Tomaselli was exposed early to the bizarre quality of America's theme-park unreality. "Our house was so close to Disneyland," Tomaselli told an L.A. Times writer, "that I could look through a pair of binoculars at night and see Tinkerbell fly across the sky from the tip of the Matterhorn." The result in Tomaselli's work is an endless fascination with the uses and abuses of perception. Part ecstatic transport and part hallucination, Tomaselli's pictures provide a particularly inspired view of the mechanics of artifice. Not satisfied to merely open a four-square window onto an alternate reality, he makes a point of getting down loving portraits of the sublime, while at the same time revealing the escapism built into several generations of illusion-making, from oil painting to DVD movies.
Two weeks ago I interviewed Tomaselli while standing in front of his brand-new, five-panel, 8-by-20-foot work, Gravity's Rainbow. The conversation ranged over the artist's work, his solidly blue-collar life and the reception Tomaselli guessed he might receive during this, Mayor Rudy Giuliani's self-appointed stint as New York Art Czar. Recently installed at the Whitney Museum's Philip Morris midtown space, Gravity's Rainbow invokes the elements in the Thomas Pynchon novel that gave it its name: the vaporous arc of V-2 rockets streaking through wartime skies. Here's hoping that these are the only unexpected fireworks this absolutely stunning exhibition will produce.
Are you a big Pynchon fan? I have to admit I've never made it through a Pynchon novel myself.
Not many people I know have. But I find that the people I meet who have read entire Pynchon novels are Pynchon fanatics. It is a sort of an all-or-nothing proposition. The title of the piece describes the work in a funny way. The collaged lines in the work are made by gravity. I pinned a long pull chain at two points, scribed its arc, and accumulated the arcs until I arrived at the finished piece. It was a very prosaic process.
How long did it take you to finish the work?
Six months of preparatory work cutting and assembling the collage elements into flat files, followed by five months of building the actual piece. I got it all laid out, different arrays, different colors, different shapes and sizes. Then I worked using those collage elements in a very intuitive, direct way. There wasn't a lot of thinking going on at that stage, though I really don't like to admit it.
Where do you get your collage elements? What sorts of media do you usually find yourself rummaging through?
I mostly use field guides for the elements that are descriptive of nature, maybe a few seed catalogs. The anatomical parts, the hands, feet, eyes and lips, generally come from magazines that are populated by lots of people, fashion magazines. After I go through them, they look like some psychotic has browsed them. Entire issues are missing the eyes, the hands or the lips. I cut them all out.
Tell me about the other elements in the work.
Well, Gravity's Rainbow incorporates hemp, datura leaves, an array of pills and lots of paint. The intent of the paint is to emulate real things. There are painted leaves and painted pills?placebos, if you will. I sandwich layers of paint between layers of resin. In this piece, for instance, I put the leaves and photo collage in first, followed by the pills. Then, a resin surface is built up that encapsulates them. Then I painted the placebo elements, followed by more resin. That is essentially how I work, in these progressive, cumulative layers.
Can you tell me how you got to this point? How did you start working in this complicated, layered, kaleidoscopic way?
That's very complicated.
Give me the long answer.
You won't be asking a question for another two hours.
That's all right.
Okay. How did I get to this point? All of my work has been heavily influenced by my growing up near Disneyland, at the heart of Southern California's theme-park culture. I was raised in Santa Ana, a town with a very mutable sense of reality. There is not much weather in Santa Ana. Even the old buildings are ersatz old. Where I grew up, you took everything for granted as some sort of simulation, a copy of something else that was real somewhere else. That sort of mutable, fuzzy reality informs my work to this day. When I was young, I was also exposed to certain influential installation artists. I went to the Nauman retrospective at the L.A. County Museum in 1973. I saw the light and space installations of James Turrell and Robert Irwin. Chris Burden shot himself very close to the neighborhood I lived in. No one had to explain these things to me as art. I found I could relate to them as a Disneyland of the irrational. This kind of art became a paradigm for me.
In college, confronted by the burden of history that painting required, I became increasingly attracted to the new performative, installation and video work. It seemed really fresh and exciting. I did a lot of installation work that essentially mined its own artificiality. Then, at some point, I began to think about drugs. I have a very colorful drug history. In my youth, I was pretty much a ne'er-do-well stoner-mallrat. Once out of school I began to consider the ideal of painting as a window to another reality. It occurred to me then that this idea dovetailed in a very interesting way with my own drug history and with the rhetoric surrounding drugs and tripping.
That rhetoric being what?
You know, the rhetoric around psychedelics. The idea that drug use leads to spiritual experiences or connects one to the deep unconscious. The rhetoric of The Doors of Perception. In the early 70s, thanks to people like Huxley and Leary, drugs were a model for an alternative world, an alternative society. But, as is the case with all utopian ideology, one eventually has to reckon with its disasters and failures. Consequently, I came to think not only about the utopian aspects of drugs, but also about their aftermath, about the transition from transcendental hippie-ism to cocaine and disco in the 70s. Strangely enough, this period also corresponded with the collapse of modernism into postmodernist stasis and pastiche. Both of these ideals crumbled simultaneously. That is when I got involved in punk rock. I was part of that scene in the late 70s in L.A.
Were you in a band?
No, but I put out zines, had friends who were in bands. Eventually, punk rock also became a straitjacket in terms of style and ideology. There were visual artists that were coming out of that scene who were taking the sublime to task. Mike Kelley is probably the best example. Kelley attempted to debunk the notion of the sublime and the transcendent, things that were very much associated with the hippies. I found Kelley's work interesting, but I also wanted to investigate those things that had been labeled as dead in a de facto way.
Those things being what?
Painting, the sublime, beauty, desire, pleasure. All of the stuff that the punk rock milieu allegedly scorned. It occurred to me that it was worth rummaging around in all that failure to see whether there was anything of value. I also noticed that I was inherently attracted to beauty, to the shape of nature, for example.
You did your first piece with drugs in 1989.
Yes. The piece featured a line of aspirin sandwiched inside a one-and-a-half-inch-wide picture frame. It contained 365 aspirins times 2. You know, two per day. That was when I really started making hybrid paintings. You can call them pictures, for lack of a better word.
Picture-making is indeed what it is. There's a great deal of what one might term production value in your work. Is that also a result of your having grown up in an environment where finish counts at every level?
Initially I wanted to find a way to encapsulate water-soluble material in a tamper-proof container. Once I started using industrial resin, one of the things that was immediately apparent to me was that it made such a seductive surface. It seemed incredible to me how much the surface resembled the surfaces of vehicles, cars, surfboards, shiny things that take you to other places. But just as important as the surface was the fact that the resin rearranged the use value of the drugs in my work. Instead of traveling through the bloodstream, the drugs traveled through the eyeballs, taking a completely different route to the brain. The resin turned out to be appropriate to my work, both formally and conceptually.
You've mentioned a few conceptual sources: Chris Burden, Mike Kelley, several others. I find it interesting, with respect to your work now, that you feel so close to that tradition. Is it a matter of you experimenting with the orthodoxies of conceptualism, then coming out somewhere else entirely?
Well, I'm not going to claim that my work is as radical as what Burden was doing. When I was kid, my mother was very fond of looking through the paper, gasping in horror, then reading out loud a horrible bit of news she could hardly believe. I remember her saying one day: "Oh my God, now somebody has gone and crucified himself and called it art." She was just livid. I thought that any art that had the ability to make my mom that mad must be interesting. Personally, I was initially attracted and repulsed by what Burden did. I thought, "Boy, that is crazy," but I looked into it. Eventually I came around to seeing Chris Burden as a great, very influential artist.
You really think he's a great artist?
Yes I do. I think that Chris Burden took sculpture to its logical end point. He brought sculpture back to the body, to its essential ingredient, coupling it with ideas of survival and endurance. His experiments were very controlled, formalized. They trafficked in the formalist language of art in the pursuit of tense social situations. So, for me, Chris Burden's work was extremely important at the time and remains important. I don't think you can see much of his influence in my work today, but he still resonates with me.
Let me come back to the reason I asked you about conceptualism's influence on your work. In your pictures, I see you modifying certain conceptual strategies. There's systems-making, lots of humor. Of course, I can't find a trace of Burden either.
What attracted me to conceptualism initially was its use of language and ideas. Mind, body and the senses were invoked simultaneously. This has stayed with me. Now, the first thing I want to do in my pictures is to seduce the viewer. How do I seduce the viewer? In a nutshell, I make objects using the classical ideals of balance and harmony. But there is also a subtext to my work. Now, if someone wants to respond to my work purely formally, that's their prerogative. But if someone takes the time to think about the objects in my work, thinks about how it's put together, that provides yet another way of conceiving of the pictures after one is done looking at the pretty colors.
Well, what about the drugs? When did you start incorporating psychoactives into the work?
Well, first it was just the aspirin. I started putting aspirin into the work for lots of reasons. There was the issue of pleasure. What is pleasure? Is it the absence of pain? If you have a headache, aspirin changes your reality. Your headache goes away and your reality is modified. I was very attracted by what pills could represent, what medicine represents. I was also wilded in the subway in the 80s, which meant I was laid up in the hospital...
You were wilded here in New York?
Yeah. This was just prior to my work with aspirin. Also, sadly, many of my friends were dying of AIDS or had died of drug overdoses. I thought about how the idea of drugs had changed in my lifetime. When you're a kid, drugs are all about better living through chemistry. If there is a problem, your parents give you a pill. Then, your folks are shocked, shocked, when you take pills for recreational purposes. Later, drugs become a tool for survival. I began thinking about how drugs fostered distinct sorts of dependencies, and, more significantly, about how drugs were really the cutting edge of technology. I didn't want to limit my investigations to over-the-counter medication, so I began putting pot leaves into the work. I wanted countercultural signifiers that presented drugs in their totality, as both agents of pleasure and altered consciousness, and also as agents of health and physical well-being. I also found that I was attracted to drugs formally. I noticed the tension and textural differences between the hard, manufactured shapes of pills, and the soft shapes of leaves. The pills were beautiful in and of themselves and the leaves were beautiful in and of themselves. Together they were even better.
Pills are essentially very colorful, festive, magic bullets. The subject of the legality of my work comes into play here. Let me just say this: Everything in my work has a legal context. If there is an opiate in my work, a prescription makes it legal. The first American flag was made out of hemp, which is now used in the manufacture of rope, paper and fiber...
Marijuana can now be legally prescribed to patients in Oregon.
Exactly. I also do more than just rearrange the use value of drugs in a Duchampian way; I don't just declare the drugs art on my say-so. Instead, the drugs are changed irrevocably. Since the pills and pot in my work are completely sealed off from any human ingesting, the drugs can no longer enter the bloodstream. And if one can't ingest them, then I don't believe that they can really be construed as drugs. That is, after all, what drugs are for?swallowing, shooting up, inhaling. But ultimately, my pictures use drugs to talk about perception, which is a subject pictures can handle.
Talking about the "Sensation" show seems unavoidable now, mostly because of your work with drugs and the absurdly censorious climate that has gripped New York in the last month. Do you think your work will be looked at differently after Rudy's cynical handling of Chris Ofili's doody?
I hope not, though I suppose anything is possible. The intention behind my work has never been to shock, be naughty or get away with anything. I do not want to be infamous. I make the pictures I do because they make sense. Drugs and pills are stand-ins for the sort of cultural detritus that people find laying around their homes today. The idea of smoking a joint, for example, is a truly banal notion. Hardly anyone cares. Recreational drugs and medicinal drugs have been seamlessly incorporated into our lives. Art requires nuanced perception and discussion, but the blowhards want hysterical sound bites. I'm sure Chris Ofili wasn't looking for a controversy defined by smug, obvious stupidity. I think controversy often falls on people unexpectedly, whether they want it or not.
Have you seen the "Sensation" show yet?
I have not, unfortunately. But I have seen some material in exhibitions here in New York. I've seen one Chris Ofili painting, a couple of Damien Hirst shows, exhibitions of Gary Hume's and Rachel Whiteread's work, Jenny Saville's current show, which is fantastic, and also the Chapman brothers, whose work, by the way, I happen to loathe. It is calculated to shock in a very simplistic way and ends up becoming boring and derivative. If there is one thing I like about today's British artists, it's their sense of democracy. They take real life and put it into art. I, too, just want to make art that is about something real. And as far as I'm concerned, the most real thing in our age is the unreal. The unreal has become far more powerful than the real. Virtual reality, computers, the Internet, movies, drugs, theme parks, malls, gene splicing and plastic surgery all play a part in the vast menu of artifice. I firmly believe that the present mutability of reality is one of the main issues separating our culture from that of our parents.
That's one of the things I admire most about your work. I really think that the best art today engages the kind of manufactured reality you've just described. This is art that has a potential purchase on what one might term the commonweal.
Well, I'm trying to hook people formally first, but the other hook in my work exists because everyone's sense of reality is scrambled. Mine is essentially a very democratic medium.
Your work is far less art about other art.
It is really more art about perception, informed by the social context of a white, working-class stoner from the burbs. Of course, the best artists create art that works at multiple levels. In the 80s, when I first began working, the art world was a very cynical place. I had all these romantic ideas back then which the cynical tastemakers thought just totally idiotic. To talk about beauty then was taboo. But the pendulum eventually swings back. After all the politicking, the cynicism, and the anti-beauty bluster of the 80s, a shift occurred and a little room opened up for work like mine.
What do you remember about the 80s?
I remember a lot of cocaine, a lot of assholish behavior. Um, there was a lot of money... Come to think of it, it was just like now! Some things never change.
"Fred Tomaselli: Gravity's Rainbow," through Jan. 7, 2000, at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, 120 Park Ave. (42nd St.), 917-663-2550.