Sunday, March 1, 2009

Part 2 NOCCA students respond to P.1: Monique Thomas on Fred Tomaselli

Like Beads on a String by Monique Thomas
Flipper, Abductor, and Hang Over
Fred Tomaselli
The U. S. Mint Louisiana State Museum

If art is a look into the artist’s view of the world, to experience it is to see as someone else sees—if only for a moment. Collagist Fred Tomaselli uses hundreds if not thousands of tiny magazine cutouts, Styrofoam shapes, leaves, and pills to create larger images which feel unworldly due to their enormous size, and which, through their vivid detail and color, redefine what is natural and beautiful. In Flipper, Tomaselli creates huge waves that overlap and intersect with each other, while maintaining symmetry across each of its three panels. Abductor depicts what seems to be a raging tornado either whipping through or exploding from the base of the piece, releasing hundreds of little pinwheels. Hang Over shows a tree overflowing with beads.
“All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist…. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

Tomaselli’s work is a new way of looking at the same old world. The quote above was taken from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, where the narrator describes how a group of aliens viewed time. This alien theory and Tomaselli’s work share the same all-inclusive theme—a breach of time and space that allows one to see everything in an instant, like a coil of “beads on a string” resting in your palm. Theoretically, the collage depicts hundreds of real life scenes (for example, I imagine a group of party-goers in a garden: butterflies and birds fluttering around them; jewels hanging from their necks, ears, wrists) that were cut apart and reorganized into the most elemental animal/vegetable/mineral categories, with hands in one section and flowers in another. In reality, one is still looking at the same images (everything present at that garden party is still there); things are just arranged differently.
Every “big picture” was ripped apart and pieced back together again in a way that makes sense, putting everything within quick sight and reach. There is an aspect of hoarding in the image—an obsession; it isn’t good enough to have just a few of anything. No, in order for things to be as they should be, one must gather all of one thing and all of another. You get the feeling that this was no casual endeavor. The plan was set, the materials gathered, and a new, meticulous reality was created.
This process is somewhat surrealist in that it takes elements of the real world and recombines or rearranges them to form a new reality—one that is different, but also logical in its own strange, indisputable way. Because this world is governed by a different logic, it must be judged by a different standard of beauty as well—one that prizes overwhelming symmetry and order. In Tomaselli’s universe, everything has a place. Stringed-together flowers or gems create a larger ribbon of similar forms and colors. Brightly-colored paints are used as glue, making connections where there were none. In this world, the natural (cutouts of leaves, butterflies, hands) combine with the man-made (painted-on dots and stars) to create a new reality in which the two coexist amiably—a recurring theme in his work.
There is also the illusion of coexistence; most of the time, each of his materials has its own lacquered plane. For example, there may be a layer of magazine cutouts, followed by a layer of geometric shapes, then a layer of paint. Though, in reality, these objects don’t share the same space, they are viewed as a whole—as one reality with one image.
I am reminded of an astrology book where a photograph of the night sky—bright with stars—is layered under a transparency that outlines a certain constellation. What other shapes—or lack thereof—would appear if one layer were peeled back? What other realities linger behind this one, somewhat incomplete?
The works have more similarities than differences. For example, all three pieces share a pitch black background keeping the focus on the image. However, in trying to put focus on something else, the background draws attention to itself; in reality, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to have anything as well-lit as the tree in Hang Over without illuminating the space beyond it as well. The images are like a pair of cartoon eyes after the lights go out: unusually and unrealistically clear.
Also, all three of the pieces chosen for the exhibit were created after Hurricane Katrina. Hang Over in particular captures the spirit of New Orleans’ most famous (or infamous) time of year: Mardi Gras. Among other things, the beads are made of hands, butterflies, and pills. You can almost feel the weight of each object on the tree, pulling at the otherwise empty branches. This raises a question: why is the tree depicted without leaves? It could be to allow the beads to stand out and not be cluttered with the unnecessary, but even so, the tree is left with an ominous look. Of the three, Hang Over has the largest single body of paint (the tree), drawing great attention to the swirls and colors of its bark. Because of the beads, its “leaflessness” isn’t noticeable at first, but the sense that something is wrong still persists—something, perhaps, that you can’t put your finger on until you notice it and realize: instead of growing out of the tree, life hangs from it.
The illusion that the image continues beyond the border of the work makes it easy to believe that this is only one of many leafless, bead-covered trees in the neighborhood; the black background makes it easy to believe that nothing else can or does exist in this world; and finally, the absence of life on the tree (combined with the abundance below it) makes it easy to believe that though the tree appears to be vibrant and full of life, it is actually just the opposite.
Tomaselli redefines reality by demonstrating the breadth of human capability. A work of this magnitude requires that the artist have a clear picture of what the finished product should look like before beginning. Sometimes the only way to prove something is possible is by doing it. I know I would have my doubts if I’d been asked if such a thing could be done.
In a New York Times article, Tomaselli is quoted as saying, “it is my ultimate aim to seduce and transport the viewer into [the] space of these pictures while simultaneously revealing the mechanics of that seduction.” The pieces work as semi-translucent mirrors through which objects, as well as one’s own reflection, can be seen. By recognizing why he likes the piece, the viewer discovers something about himself.

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