Close Look

The Dazzling, Dizzying Art of Fred Tomaselli

The Dazzling, Dizzying Art of Fred Tomaselli
A detail from July 5, 2012, 2012.

Fred Tomaselli may be known as the king of psychedelic art, but his practice in deeply rooted in art-historical precedents. His canvases riddled with hallucinogens, pills, and plant matter take cues from sources as disparate as Goya to 1970s L.A. youth culture. 


Using the New York Times as his canvas, Tomaselli reimagines the front-page photographs as opportunities for art. Often he creates rich, colorful backdrops that highlight elements from the original images, which are frequently of a political nature. Thus a soldier is rendered as a Christ-like figure or the scene of an attack in Iraq is obscured by delicate latticework patterns. In one image for the article “Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe,” one man with an arm outstretched becomes godly, as swirls of paint and rays of light beam out from his fist.


beetlesBlotter Acid (2000)

In contrast to his work that takes inspiration from the news cycle, much of Tomaselli’s work imagines almost mythical depictions of animals. Snakes, owls, insects, and menacing eyes populate imagery rendered in searing colors and filled in with extraordinary detailing. This work takes a folkloric or scientific pictures of wildlife, and applies and intricate craft esthetic that turns the original intent on its head, rendering creatures such as ravens as jazzy, colorful creations. The artist has long been interested in the idea of utopia and in his works tries to create miniature worlds that mix fantasy, fauna, and fact. 


headUntitled (2003)

Tomaselli’s work often activates the picture plane with kaleidoscopic patterns and grids to mystifying effect. These structures evoke both natural phenomena and the body, sometimes employing the use of dozens of eye-like images, streaking fireworks, or explosive gestures across the canvas or even crashing into one another. Often the artist will combine these elements to otherworldly effect, as in one untitled work in which eyes, brains, and mouths coalesce into a human head that emits rays of dots, dashes, and eyes."I want people to get lost in the work,” the artist has said of his mind-altering work. Growing up in Southern California, Tomaselli has said the nearby theme parks became a major influence on his artwork, with their mix of fantasy and reality. Mixing folkloric references with a postmodernist sensibility, Tomaselli blends dozens of elements together in his pictures, at once overwhelming and seducing the viewer. What's his guilty pleasure, Artspace asked? "I was raised Catholic. All my pleasures are guilty." 


abstractUntitled (2000)

The artist attended Cal State Fullerton for college, later settling in Los Angeles and witnessing the music and drug culture that permeated the city in the 1970s and 80s. That experience led to the signature move for the artist: actual prescription pills decorate the surfaces of many of his works in dizzying constellations that only hint at the actual effects they hold. Beyond pills, Tomaselli doesn't shy away from outlandish materials or sources for images; his work is a hodgepodge of a variety of cut-outs from magazines and books as well as plants and herbs, all sealed onto the canvas under resin. He fills his studio with paper cutouts of birds and flowers, hemp, and leaves, but legal hallucinogens and stimulants are his forte: ephedra bush, Mormon Tea, belladonna. His materials list might read more like a pharmacy, enriching the emotional life of his works with the mysteries of what might experience not only to look at it but also submit to the experiences such substances represent. "While I’m working, I make a huge mess and everything becomes completely disorganized. I change my mind, scrape things off, paint over stuff, and drill things out," he told BOMB in 2010. "When it’s all over and I’ve wrecked everything, I neaten things up."


magnetic fieldsThe cover of The Magnetic Field's i

Tomaselli has designed a number of album covers throughout his career, as music has been a major influence on his work through the past and present. His painting 'Gravity in Four Directions' is the source material for the Magnetic Fields' album "i" and for Phish's album "Joy." The members of Wilco are fans too: Tomaselli's work was included in The Wilco Book. Other musicians with whom he has collaborated include Laura Cantrell, Grand Duchy, and The Melvins. The artist has also been known to listen to music while he works, letting his "gut" be his guide. 


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