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Before moving to Brooklyn, Fred Tomaselli grew up and studied in California—and not just anywhere in California. Tomaselli hails from Orange County, in “the shadow of Disneyland,” as curator Mike McGee writes in the catalog for this unexpected survey of formative sculptures, kinetic installations, and mixed-media paintings at Tomaselli’s alma mater, Cal State Fullerton.
So many telltale archetypes of SoCal culture are present in Tomaselli’s oeuvre (aside from the drugs, which the artist has been including in his media since around 1990): his use of glassy, poured resin (a technique learned while shaping surfboards); his exceptional craft skills (he was also a woodworker); his inclination towards Baudrillardian states of artifice and unreality; and the tangible influences of both the exuberant California Funk aesthetic and the transcendent minimalism of 1970s Light and Space.
The collision and subsequent disentanglement of these latter two influences is charted in the Fullerton exhibition. Titled Early Work or How I Became a Painter, the show gathers over twenty works, many of which have not been exhibited since they were made in the 1980s and early ‘90s. It is not organized chronologically, so attention must be paid to the checklist to understand how Tomaselli got from an untitled watercolor study of succulents dating from 1978—the earliest work in the show, made when he was 22—to Brain with Flowers (1990–97), a later, psychedelic resin panel featuring pills, pot leaves, and blotter acid.
Aside from the botanical watercolor, only one piece was reportedly made in California before Tomaselli relocated to New York in 1985. Current Theory (1984) consists of a blue tarp spread out on the floor, on which maybe a hundred Styrofoam cups are tethered on short pieces of string—the kind of effortlessly effective installation that every art student wishes they’d thought up. Two large fans cause them to rock back and forth, creating an effect not unlike the bobbing waves of the ocean. The piece sets in motion a pleasing sequence of ironies: containers for liquid, containing only air, create the illusion of moving water due to the movement of air around them. Then there’s the punning title and the image of cups floating, their chemical artificiality in toxic opposition to the saltwater that seems to carry them.
In the catalog, Gregory Volk observes that hung vertically, Current Theory would be analogous in its effect to one of Tomaselli’s more recent, optically roiling compositions. Other three-dimensional works make clear the artist’s journey through this period, from painting to object making and back again to pictorial flatness. In Cubic Sky (1988), he transferred a detailed map of the night sky onto six boxes, and scratched holes in their surfaces where stars were located. Each box has a light fixture inside, and when hung in a darkened space, they seem to “containerize the infinite,” as Tomaselli puts it in the catalog.
Cubic Sky is well executed, and notwithstanding the thinness of its philosophical observations, it works in a way that most teenage stoners would appreciate. Elsewhere in the exhibition is a partner piece, a work made two years later, which signals something of a breakthrough for the artist, though one much less transcendent. Box for Your Head (1990) is a wall-mounted cube, lacquered in brown, resin-coated Ailanthus leaves, with a round hole through which viewers are encouraged to poke their heads. Inside, in the darkness, countless pinpricks of light twinkle like stars. But the work does not transport you into a state of heavenly wonder. Instead, you hear the hum of a fan, your eyes adjust to the gloom, and your hunched back starts to feel uncomfortable. The box smells a bit musty.
Tomaselli has, from this period on, seemed markedly ambivalent about the potential of transcendence or escape in his work. While his paintings—which often incorporate snippets of collage, pharmaceutical drugs, and parts of psychoactive plants as well as painted areas—can be exquisitely detailed and immaculately finished, their airless enclosure in a thick layer of polished epoxy resin keeps them at a remove. The effect is like looking through a window and being distracted by the glass. In front of his work, there is little hope of becoming the “transparent eyeball” that Ralph Waldo Emerson described in Nature, his treatise on disembodied, undifferentiated transcendence. That is also where Tomaselli departed from Light and Space artists like James Turrell and Eric Orr. Instead of asking for submission, he uses visual pleasure as another sensory stimulus, a drug that should be ingested knowingly and with caution.
Fred Tomaselli:Early Work or How I Became a Painter was on view from September 12–December 17, 2015 at Begovich Gallery, California State University, Fullerton.
Originally published in Carla Issue 3.