Last weekend we took in the Fred Tomaselli exhibition at Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum. Two things up front: first, Thanksgiving weekend is a kickass time to visit a suburban university museum. All the spaces in the parking lot to choose from, and no undergrads wandering the galleries with their notebooks, working on that paper for Art 1. Second thing is, you have to understand: it's impossible to write about a Fred Tomasellli show without some lame jokes. I tried my best, but consider yourself warned.
Tomaselli's works, or at least most of those featured in the exhibit, typically feature brightly colored, spacey (sometimes literally), highly decorative compositions built up out of painted elements and collage suspended in different layers of clear resin, all against and underlying black background. The collage elements are of course famous, and underscore the pieces' imagery: as you can see, he uses pills and leaves of various exciting kinds to build up his patterns. The other common material consists of a vast number of cutout photographs of hands, eyeballs, and countless other body parts that are used in an endless profusion to make the figures and birds in his collages.
The work is often fun to look at. The colors really pop out against the black, and the depth of the layers of resin - some seemed to go down as far as a half-inch before meeting the underlying surface of the image - makes for an engaging play between the upper and deeper elements of the image. The garish psychedelia of it all can be amusing, like watching a Cheech and Chong movie. One doesn't want to buy a catalog on Tomaselli's work to put on the coffee table - a black light poster would be so much better. The intricacies of his astronomical patterns can mesmerize, like watching afterimages. One giggles a little, as the buzz takes hold.
Buzzes never last as long as they promise to, however, and sooner or later Tomaselli's work brings the art equivalent of staring at the ceiling, watching it flash colors, and wishing to fall asleep. It gets boring, like watching a Cheech and Chong movie. Then there's his metaphors and imagery, aside from the simple spacey, drugginess of it all. In an interview at Artnet, Tomaselli noted that
I'm not a hippie. I was too young. I wanted to be a hippie, but I was a stoner. Stoners are hippies without ideology. I think that's one of the things I'm responding to, this sense of failure that so pervaded the 1970s when I came of age.
One feels it there, the poorly thought out (if thought at all) "naturalism", the cosmic, mythic pretensions, the sense that one is stuck in a room with some guy rolling a joint on the cover of a Blue Öyster Cult record, all the while talking about how cool Steppenwolf is - so tawdry. A sense of failure, of intellectual, even moral, ruin? Tomaselli's paintings don't have that, exactly. They are far too much the meticulous fine art production. They nevertheless evoke it, remind one of it. And that's too bad, because really, all that stuff was horrible beyond belief, and the thought that it had died or at least been relegated to the most backward, isolated parts of suburban teen culture was a great relief to those of us who came of age toward its end, suffered it, and moved on. Now it's in a museum, sort of, respectable at last. As for Tomaselli's work, it's not without a rush, but I can't imagine wanting to sign on for the whole trip.
(Along with the Artnet interview, Tyler recently reposted an account of a talk by Tomaselli from a couple of years ago, and CIRCA Art Magazine has a review of what seems to be the same show as is at the Rose from when it was in Edinburgh.)