The Wild One

Collage and paint collide with fierce energy in Brooklyn-based Fred Tomaselli’s compositions.
Inspired by news stories, they present a natural world of kaleidoscopic beauty

Words by Julie L. Belcove
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The New York-based Fred Tomaselli is acutely aware that as an artist – particularly one who makes a very comfortable living as such – he is privileged to enter his own little world every time he steps foot inside his Brooklyn studio, even as the world outside seems to be spinning out of control. “The studio is almost like paradise,” the 58-year-old California native says. But he is also a self-described news junkie, reading The New York Times, checking the web and listening to the radio. “The news is constantly penetrating the environment I live in.”
That tension – utopia versus cold, hard reality – pervades Tomaselli’s oeuvre. In his intricately patterned, obsessively assembled – or, as he says, “relentlessly handmade” – “hybrids” of collage and painting, he seems alternately to be inviting the world in and shutting it out. There are elegant, unabashedly beautiful images of birds, but look closer and see that they comprise tiny pictures snipped from magazines; there are fish, trees and flowers fashioned not only from paint but from pills and organic matter like insects and leaves, encased in layers of resin. The New York Times art critic Ken Johnson has compared his hybrids to “windows into the mind of someone in a state of visionary rapture”.
At first glance, his subjects might look placid. On careful inspection, they can veer to the violent: is the bird with its beak thrust into the snake’s mouth in Penetrators (Large), overleaf, feeding the serpent or fighting it? Has the eagle in Avian Flower Serpent just killed the snake wrapped around the tree branch?
Although he lives in Williamsburg, an urban hub of creative types, Tomaselli is actively connected to nature. He is an avid bird-watcher, fly fisherman, surfer and gardener. But his art historical influences also run deep and are as disparate as Japanese Edo prints and Joan Miró’s Constellations series of cosmic-themed paintings, executed at the outbreak of World War II. “I felt like Miró was saying the world is going to hell, but this need for culture continues,” says Tomaselli. “Art needs to be made.”
Tomaselli’s ongoing series, The Times, in which he alters the lead photo on the The New York Times front page, is in the same political vein. He has tweaked images of Ponzi-villain Bernie Madoff, bombed rubble in Syria and children sledding in Central Park. “I decided to become another editor and impose my subjective decisions,” he says. Lawrence Weschler, a well-known cultural critic, has described the series as an “act of witness, a Book of Days across an age of tumultuous transition.”
The series, which has heavily influenced his recent hybrids, will be featured in a solo exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in October, and in California in February 2015. A selection of his bird paintings will also be on view from October to February as part of The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
His dealers, he says, are adept at insulating him from business affairs. At one time, a while back, uncomfortable with the growing commodification of visual art, Tomaselli tried to stop making it. “But I was really unhappy,” he admits. Now, “I’ve made an uneasy peace with it. Few jobs have no dark night of the soul. I do feel I can do anything I want in the studio. That’s incredible.”
Fred Tomaselli: The Times is at Orange County Museum of Art until May 24, 2015. Fred Tomaselli: The Times, by Lawrence Weschler, is published by Prestel
Your address: The St. Regis Washington, D.C.

Nov. 11, 2010, 2010
In this instalment of his series The Times, Tomaselli
took the original photograph of students protesting
tuition hikes in the UK, or, as the artist says,
“anarchists smashing stuff”, and made an abstraction of brightly
colored shards, like an explosion of stained glass


After Oct. 16, 2010, 2014
Tomaselli’s Times pieces sometimes serve as studies for larger
compositions, such as this one, inspired by a photo
of a machine drilling a tunnel for a Swiss rail system.
“There’s this zooming in and zooming out happening,”
he says of the painting, which pairs Earth’s
flaming core with a kaleidoscope of humdrum man-made products