Artist Fred Tomaselli’s black light poster-esque psychedelic images are everywhere — online, in books, and even on album covers — but to truly appreciate the art, you need to see it live.
This week, the Brooklyn Museum began a mid-career retrospective of the Williamsburg artist, and though the offerings are a bit sparse, there’s still plenty to look at.
Art is not a second, third or even fourth career for Tomaselli — the California native has worked as a woodworker, rancher, and in music magazines. All these influences are at play in his work. The early, minimalist, “All the Bands I Can Remember Seeing and All the Extinct Vertebrates in North America Since 1492” is a constellation of just those two things. Another relic from his earlier work -— “Black and White All Over” — is a carved piece of Op-Art comprised of perfectly ordered pills, an exercise in geometry.
As the show progresses from his experiments with photograms to his kaleidoscopic collages, the work becomes freer and more intuitive. Tomaselli’s most impressive pieces are, no surprise, his biggest — intricate collages comprised of hundreds of found materials, from images of plants, bird, insects, and body parts, that can take up to a year to complete (there’s no Warholian factory at work here).
The devil’s in the details in these paintings. Only upon close inspection can you can fully appreciate the elements that make up the whole — layers of paint, collage, pills (anything from Tums to OxyContin), hallucinogenic plants, resin and more paint, that create an almost 3-D effect. Massive works like “Untitled (Explusion),” a play on Thomas Cole’s “Explusion from the Garden of Eden,” is Tomaselli’s own tripped-out version of Adam and Even’s fate, a mushroom cloud of fauna and insects that you can find something you in every time you look at it.
Tomaselli’s lived in an urban setting for 25 years, but nature remains a large factor of his work. Another large-scale piece, “Field Guide,” examines man’s agrarian role, an inside-out human man toiling the earth while a wave of butterflies flutter from him — attacking him? Coming from him? It’s hard to say. “Avian Flower Serpent” explores the Darwinian struggle — a favorite of the artist’s — as a larger-than-life, majestic bird sits atop a tree branch, a snake in its clutches.
Whether it’s the 3-D effect of his layers of collage, resin and paint, the use of nature imagery, or the inclusion of real plants in his pieces, from fig leaves to datura, the art has an alive quality. “Night Music for Raptors,” one of Tomaselli’s newest pieces, even pulsates, its collage of eyes arranged in concentric circles to form an owl reverberating as you look at it, and it looks at you.
The last section of the museum is devoted to Tomaselli’s newer works -— playful paintings that use the cover of The New York Times with Tomaselli’s art as the main picture. There’s also his works inspired by music, from a tower of amps reaching eternally to the sky on one wall to a case containing a stack of the albums he designed on another. It’s a bit of a decrescendo after the impressive collages that came before, and based on the trajectory he’s established, one can hope the artist continues the path he’s established in his large-scale pieces.
Until then, at least, take your time, and enjoy the trip.
“Fred Tomaselli” at the Brooklyn Museum [200 Eastern Pkwy. at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 638-5000], Oct. 8-Jan.2, 2011. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.