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In our third weekly Wednesday Book Review, we’ll be taking a look at the catalogue for the Brooklyn Museum’s solo exhibition of Fred Tomaselli’s work. The exhibition itself is also discussed here.

Ed. Ian Berry, Fred Tomaselli, 2010 (DelMonico Books)

The catalog for the Fred Tomaselli exhibition currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum is pretty mammoth for a show that only takes up three galleries. Still, the tome serves well as a way to expand on ideas presented in the exhibition and give a greater view of the artist’s work than would otherwise be possible in the limited space. Just do yourself a favor and don’t stop at the book version.

The diversity of works included in the catalog, from early installations and sculptures to constellation drug charts and later lacquered collages, is fascinating to see, but the ability to see so much at once also comes at a cost. Fred Tomaselli‘s work in particular suffers under reproduction; the photos give almost no hint to the depth, gloss, and thickness of the artist’s surfaces. So while the catalogue is a great retrospective look, it’s just as important to see the pieces in person before passing a final judgment.

The contextualization of Tomaselli’s work in the book is a great way to understand where the artist is coming from and the thinking behind his too-often stereotyped canvases. The artist’s progress through different materials and interests speaks to a lifelong artistic development that seems outside the definition of “outsider artist” that catalogue essayist Linda Norden lays down. The work isn’t simply about drugs or psychedelic trips; it’s the natural world, the changing tides of cultural trends and humanity’s mutable experience with their environment that provides the impetus for Tomaselli’s work.

What’s most illuminating in the catalog aren’t the analytical essays provided by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson and Linda Norden, nor the overly free associative tone poem contributed by writer David Shields. It’s Ian Berry’s conversation with Tomaselli himself that stands out as the key to the artist’s work.

We hear about the artist’s Catholic roots and his feeling for religious art’s sensuality that creeps in to his work, a personal history of post-Light and Space Los Angeles, the downfall of the punk movement and the experience of maturing into a stable family life that nevertheless allows him a life not dissimilar to his childhood, one filled with exploration, wonder, and outpourings of creativity. The drugs are a part of the fabric of the artist’s life, not something to be fetishized.

Finishing the far too short interview, I was struck with the desire for more of the same, for the artist and his work to speak alone. Thankfully, the majority of the book is made up of dazzling pictures, a topiary, bestiary, and terrarium of an interior world.

Fred Tomaselli is available from the Brooklyn Museum’s shop and on Amazon.

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

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Kyle Chayka

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,...