Fred Tomaselli, “Echo, Wow, and Flutter” (2000) (image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum) (click to enlarge)

One might be excused for mistaking Fred Tomaselli’s solo show at the Brooklyn Museum for a pharmacy. Upon closer look, the collaged paintings, baroquely-arranged magazine clippings coated in a thick layer of resin, are embedded with pills the way a microchip is implanted under the skin. Sometimes the names are visible, Vicodin, Oxycontin, even a few Viagras. More often than not, though, the pills only become pills upon closer inspection. From afar, they just look like another element of Tomaselli’s works. Drugs are synthesized into the artist’s paintings, and though the psychological shock of recognizing a pill name remains, the chemicals form just another ingredient.

This synthesizing is also how I think Tomaselli’s work should be talked about, in fact. Let’s not discuss the artist’s work in terms of the raw media of his paintings, not in the context of the Ecstasy: In and Around Altered States show. Yeah, there are drugs in the paintings. Most of them are probably illegal in such vast quantities as Tomaselli uses them. But though that’s the form of the work, that’s not the content: in this case, the medium is not the message. Aren’t we all done with the drug hysteria and fetish, now that weed is basically legal in California and the cliches of the painkiller-addicted housewife and the coke-snorting, bowl smoking banker are just that, cliches? So let’s giggle and move on. What’s behind the drugs in Fred Tomaselli?

Fred Tomaselli, “Untitled (Expulsion)” 2000 (image courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

What jumps to mind after the initial visual amusement is Tomaselli’s engagement with art history. The density of the paintings aren’t simply that they’re obsessively made from print scraps, but also that the works carry layers of visual and conceptual references. Take Tomasell’s “Untitled (Expulsion)” from 2000 (seen above). The image is an expulsion from Eden, the banishment of Adam and Eve, and shows the clear influence of a Masaccio fresco in Brancacci Chapel. The appropriated pose of the figures and belies the surreal nature of the rest of the work, but yet the classical and the bizarre are together subsumed into a greater whole. The angel of Masaccio’s depiction is replaced by an epic, swirling representation of something both divine and horrible. A central eye (another fixation of Tomaselli’s) tops an amorphous body of resin-encased leaves, radiating outwards in a dazzling of insects, flowers, body parts: the natural world. Wouldn’t you imagine the force casting you out of Paradise to be terrible and terrifying?

Fred Tomaselli, “Big Raven” (2008) (image courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

Tomaselli updates an old archetype in a new vocabulary, and blows up the imagery of Eden with the force of a hallucinogenic. Also check out Tomaselli’s “Big Raven” (2008), a massive bird perched atop a stone that seems to explode into particulate snowflakes. The black background of the piece separates from its subject like a dissection board. Yet as phantasmagorical as the work looks, it has clear visual precedents. Check it out next to James Audubon’s naturalist bird paintings. In context, the underlying weirdness of Audubon’s work comes out just as the probing, scientific quality is uncovered in Tomaselli’s work.

The Brooklyn Museum’s show is worth a look not just for the great work on display, but also for the in-depth and even way the artist is explored. The intelligent hanging of works and the progress from one themed gallery to the next (roughly: Abstraction, Figuration and Naturalism) leaves no temptation to view the work as scandalous. It prompts thinking and analyzing rather than knee-jerk reactions. That’s not to say that things get boring; if you’re looking for kicks, Tomaselli still packs a fun/serious punch few others could muster in this small but strong show.

Fred Tomaselli runs until January 2, 2011 at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn).

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...