Artist's little helper

Fred Tomaselli's work offers the experience of taking drugs in the safest possible way -- through the eyes.

Published October 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The art preparators are coming to pack Fred Tomaselli's enormous new work, "Gravity's Rainbow," and move it from his Williamsburg studio to the Philip Morris branch of the Whitney Museum. The show opens on Oct. 29, and now, at the 11th hour, Fred is pondering whether the 8-by-20 piece that seemed so large and ambitious while he was making it, is actually large and ambitious enough for the occasion. These are hard factors to assess in a city where an artist finds himself competing with the likes of the Empire State Building for size, beauty and lasting impressions.

Tomaselli creates gorgeously pristine paintings characterized by mesmerizing patterns and a precise order that reference both early American Shaker quilts and latter-day psychedelic hippie art. Like much of his earlier work, "Gravity's Rainbow" is constructed from complexly overlapping garlands of pharmaceutical drugs strung like beads on a necklace. Hemp, datura leaves and cut-outs of lips, eyes, hands, birds, reptiles and bugs are draped in inverted rainbows of color against a deep black background, which makes the images appear to float in space. Layered over the real pills are garlands of painted pills. This creates a tension between the real, the photographic and the painted that is totally deceiving from a distance and rather mesmerizing up close, and provides a humorous and ironic commentary on the allure of mind-altering experiences and the unreliability of perception. The drugs, enough in any given piece to create a healthy overdose, are safely sealed away from use -- in enough resin to kill the average human being. His ironic play with the toxicity of beauty is a recurring theme in his exploration of the sublime.

Tomaselli, who grew up in the shadow of Disneyland, a self-professed "stoner without ideology," is on a quest for the sublime in places that would make the average new-age guru cringe. He traces parallels between Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond and David Koresh's compound at Waco; between the pre-digital immersive realities of the theme park, a gourmet trek to the top of Mount Everest and the transcendent hallucinogenic effects of LSD. All express a deep longing for a utopian experience that is, all too often, quenched with a "mother's little helper" or a stiff drink. It is through Tomaselli's appreciation of the seductive jewel-like qualities of these "mother's little helpers" that he finds the prima materia for his work.

Despite the title of the piece, Tomaselli resists allusions to the Thomas Pynchon novel "Gravity's Rainbow," except to say that he was enchanted by the inexhaustible hallucinogenic vision of Pynchon's masterpiece about the German blitz on London. He fought like hell against using it as his own title, but unfortunately, once the idea crossed his mind, the layering of brightly colored inverted rainbows won out. Now there is nothing left to do but dread a future full of well-informed questions about the connection to Pynchon.

On a tour through the studio, Tomaselli shows me flat files filled with sheets of calibrated paper cutouts of birds, flowers, body parts, hemp and datura leaves -- the tiny bits of things that make up the pixels, binary code, the DNA of his massive painting. What less could you expect from a guy with obsessive-compulsive tendencies who grew up on the modular delights of Legos, Lincoln Logs and the Erector Set?

Other supplies include a box filled with datura pods, known alternately as Jimson weed, a powerful legal hallucinogen used in native cultures to wrestle with the forces of darkness. Another box contains branches of the ephedra bush, a strong but also legal stimulant known as Mormon Tea after its use by Joseph Smith's followers. He also often uses belladonna in his paintings, so named by the Victorians because it was thought to enhance feminine beauty by dilating the pupils and making women languorous and compliant. Belladonna is the norm in the cultural history of intoxicants. We like our women sedated -- whether it is with morphine, valium, Prozac or heroin -- and disdain women's use of disinhibiting drugs like alcohol and cocaine.

Despite their potency, the datura, ephedra and belladonna all look like dull desiccated weeds. Not so with the thousands of brightly colored pills that are neatly divided into boxes of white rounds, colored rounds, white capsules and colored capsules. The sheer abundance is mesmerizing and raises the question: Where did you get all this stuff? From outdated samples, friends' old prescriptions, anonymous donations in the mail and bulk orders of nonprescription drugs from a wholesaler. It is a virtual waterfall of free drugs.

In the early days of his drug paintings, Tomaselli used all kinds of illegal substances in his work, but today he is leery of the black market for fear of having his paintings seized in customs as they travel to shows around the world. Besides, most street drugs, no matter how powerful, aren't nearly as pretty as the ones manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, which design their product in sophisticated, ravishing color combinations unique to each brand.

Fred points out that the soothing sea-foam green and beige of a Prozac capsule matches its soothing "prosaic" name and function. He demonstrates the way "Zoloft" rolls off your tongue on an onomatopoetic cloud of good feeling. Someday he'd like to meet one of these drug designers and have a heart-to-heart about color, form and the suggestive power of names.

Despite the quantity of drugs in his work, it is not entirely about drugs. Rather, it is about our quest for the sublime in a mediated reality that seduces us with beauty while masking the shadow side of terror and death. The obvious reason for the enchanting appearance of each gorgeous pill is that they are meant to be swallowed (and, as in "Alice in Wonderland," the right one must be swallowed for the desired effect). The not-so-obvious reason is so that a paramedic on the scene or a frantic 911 caller can diagnose an overdose based on the description of a pill.

Tomaselli likens his work to a Proustian experience -- drugs are his generation's madeleine. Even without a deep hallucinogenic drug backlog to draw upon, the jewel-like quality of pharmaceutical drugs elicits the stimulating and subduing effects of the many substances, legal and illegal, that alter one's ordinary waking consciousness.

But all drugs are not created equal. Historically, they don't even produce the same kind of art work. Despite the reputation of the '60s for wild, drug-ridden abandon, the art of the time was highly regimented and detailed. Op art, pop art and the obsessive detail and overall patterning of hallucinogenic art, macrami and even cheap imported tapestries matched the introspective pothead predisposition for obsessing on tiny details. This was definitely not the art of the bohemian '50s, when the disinhibiting properties of alcohol fueled the aggressive gestures of abstract expressionism. Just try to imagine Jackson Pollock sitting still long enough to look for a universe in the head of a pin.

Tomaselli is from another generation altogether. He is well-versed in how the hippie dream crashed and burned on the shoals of disco and cocaine (much the same way that modernism fell apart in the face of postmodernism). Tomaselli began picking through the rubble from a punk rock perspective, redeeming aspects of both, and exploring the toxic nature of beauty. He is not a crusader for political change in drug policy, despite some of its obvious absurdities. He is an artist tackling issues art can carry.

But hallucinogens do not great painters make. Even though the work is a direct result of his quest for the sublime through the hallucinogenic experience, there is no way he could create anything of lasting beauty on peyote or acid. Coffee and cigarettes are the dominant drugs of choice for this kind of work. Hallucinogens just take too damn much time, and render the user too dysfunctional, which is why alcohol, tobacco and stimulants are the drugs of capitalism.

Tomaselli sees no irony -- or better yet, an irony too obvious to point out -- in exhibiting his work in a space sponsored by Philip Morris. Ten years ago, before the tobacco industry settlement, it was considered a mark of bad faith in the art world to accept funds from the tobacco giants. Times have changed and nanny culture has moved on to gun manufacturers and elephant dung. The anti-smoking campaign has once again made cigarettes a medium for teenage rebellion.

Tomaselli is neither defiantly proud to be a smoker, nor desperate to quit. He's just addicted. I also think that the pariah status of the smoker allows Tomaselli time and space to think when he's exiled from the dinner table. Not to mention that he finds the cigarettes a fantastic coping mechanism to accompany the obsessive-compulsive nature of his work. He even uses the filter end of the cigarette as a tool to create the perfect painted pseudo pills and capsules that enhance the piece. An earlier piece, "Dermal Delivery," is an ode to an adventure in smoking cessation, incorporating nicotine patches with paper cut-outs of body parts. He tried adding a garland of cigarette butts to "Gravity's Rainbow," but they were simply too ugly to make the grade. A dead cigarette simply does not hold the jewel-like promise of a pill.

Once "Gravity's Rainbow" is off to the Whitney, we head to lunch at Ozmot's Dish, a resurrected storefront covered in Orientalist patterns of ceramic tile with an undulating suspended ceiling and Eames chairs. Always conscious of what people expect to see, he wanted to deliver the new scenic Williamsburg of escalating property values and critical mass hipsterism, rather than the ordinary working class neighborhood he's lived in since first arriving in New York fourteen years ago (around the time when most self-respecting emerging artists were living in the East Village).

Raised in Orange County, Calif. (one of those places that make you stronger if it doesn't kill you first), Tomaselli could see Tinkerbell from his roof with binoculars. Aside from his Swiss immigrant parents driving Fred and his five younger brothers and sisters across the Mojave desert in search of an Alpine experience, he had no real contact with nature. The closest thing to it he ever saw was Tom Sawyer's Island in the Magic Kingdom down the street. He was genuinely shocked when he couldn't find the plumbing apparatus behind the first actual waterfall he ever saw.

Despite early attempts, Tomaselli was never mellow enough to make a very good hippie. He cut a straight line through Bowie and the New York Dolls on his way to the Sex Pistols and the L.A. punk scene. Soon, he was disenchanted by the rabid orthodoxies of the punk experience, and by its invasion by suburban kids who missed the whole point. He was also tired of its nihilism, and wanted to re-explore the transcendental properties of hippie-ism from his new perspective. Having run out of options in L.A. after losing his loft, his girlfriend, his job and his gallery, but with enough money in his pocket from selling his art to get on a plane, Tomaselli moved to New York sight unseen.

It was probably for the best that Tomaselli couldn't afford to live in the East Village in the mid-80's. That was not a moment when his penchant for slowly crafting beautiful and luminescent works of art would have been particularly appreciated. If Artforum is to be believed, most of those artists are taking their East Village gallery debuts off their résumés anyway. By now, however, Fred has caught up with the times, although he briefly wonders when people will start taking the Williamsburg experience off their résumés. He plans to outlive his neighborhoods current artist-infested chic as well.

Now after a decade and a half of life in the wilds of Brooklyn, Tomaselli is something of an urban naturalist. He kayaks on the East River and grows figs in his backyard. Its not exactly Grizzly Adams, but then again, the wilderness experience of the average American is the national park system -- something he dismisses as just another theme park where everyone tromps around in polar fleece, Gore-Tex and carbon fiber -- with all the Native Americans and hostile wildlife taken out. He's no idiot, he does it too, but he doesn't kid himself that this is anything but a gourmet experience of nature with all its discomforts eradicated.

He thinks this return to nature and the current obsession with gourmet foods, wines and cigars dates back to the hippie quest for good pot. He also credits the ritual of dropping acid in the woods, handed down from one hippie to another and culminating in the requisite semi-mystical "oh, wow man, now I get it" experience, with the founding of the ecology movement and the eco-tourism industry. He has an armchair fascination with extreme tales of nature rearing its ferocious head and snapping off some unsuspecting urbanites frozen limb. It is only then that we realize that nature is the real thing and not some fiction created for the benefit of weekend warriors.

At this point, Tomaselli is between dealers, courting prospective galleries and trying to make the best choice for the next phase of his career. But this is a good position to be in for an artist who has a show opening at a branch of a major American museum, a large-scale work that will probably be acquired by a museum collection, and a waiting list for new work. He's even finally conceded to do what he calls a "chemical celestial portrait" of tennis star and art dealer/collector John McEnroe, a portrait of the inner and outer space of the subject based on his birth date and astrological chart. The stars are all renamed according to the person's loosely defined "drug history." Tomaselli prompts the memory through a questionnaire of potential chemical compounds -- ranging from cold medicines to licit, illicit and prescription drugs, including banal substances like caffeine and chocolate -- that might make up the man. The future holds the Lyon Biennial in France and a book project with writer Rick Moody for the Whitney Museum Library, which, according to Tomaselli, will be expensive, rare and collectible ... and available soon in a store near you.

Tomaselli says he never expected to quit his day job and that it is actually a little weird (after years of sheet-rocking and crating and shipping other more successful artists' work) to be making a decent living selling his art. In fact, after walking through the wild sides of hippie transcendentalism and punk rock nihilism, he marvels at his current status as a husband, father, taxpayer, homeowner and general all-around upstanding citizen who can pay his bills.

With the show set to open, Fred wonders whether he will be the next stop on Giuliani's Helmsian (as in Jesse) tour through the New York art world. When it comes to spending public funds on art projects, Tomaselli feels like the citizens of New York are subsidizing Giuliani's engagement in an absurd form of performance art: surfing the polls while making unsuccessful and inane attacks on the First Amendment. (It occurs to me that if Giuliani wins his fight to evict the Brooklyn Museum, Steve Wynn may just step up, buy the entire $1 billion art collection and ship it to Vegas. The totem poles and Winslow Homers will become one more stop on a tour through a fake New York, a fake Egypt and a fake Italy. As far as mediated immersive realities, Vegas has L.A. and New York beat hands down.)

In a country where we have such deeply conflicted feelings about the acceptable forms of pleasure, Tomaselli offers up the utopian experience of taking drugs in the safest way he knows how: through the eyes, rather than the bloodstream. The sober mind can then come up with its own wild conclusions.

By Susan Emerling

Susan Emerling is a feature film and documentary writer who lives in New York and Los Angeles. Her most recent film, "Robert Zemeckis on Drinking, Drugging and Smoking in America: The Pursuit of Happiness" premiered on Showtime in September.

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