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Last April, during the terrifying early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I was sheltering in place with my son, rattled by incessant ambulances, anxious about everything, and obsessively consuming any and all news of the virus, I received several emails from Fred Tomaselli. They included images of the New York Times collages — intensely colorful alterations of photographs and texts on the paper’s front page — that he was composing at home, in a makeshift workspace a far cry from his Manhattan studio.
One riveting work, “April 9, 2020,” responds to an especially harrowing photograph: a PPE-clad healthcare worker outside a temporary morgue in which swaddled bodies are shockingly visible. The scene suggests some faraway war zone, yet the war zone was Brooklyn, where Tomaselli and I both live. “DRAMATIC CHANGES IN BEHAVIOR PRODUCE FLICKERS OF OPTIMISM,” the headline declares.
In Tomaselli’s collage, those “flickers of optimism” have become ebullient — even ecstatic — circles in which snippets of newspaper articles are contained within multicolored concentric rings; the circles partially cover the heartbreaking scene behind, with a bit of the morgue remaining visible. The healthcare worker no longer attends to the morgue, but instead grasps two of these forms, as if adding them to the spectacular pile. Tomaselli’s emphatic transformation of the Times photograph teases hope out of raw fear, joy and beauty out of desolation and despair.
I opened another email and instantly burst into tears; that doesn’t happen very often. In “March 16, 2020,” a lone woman rolls a silver suitcase through an eerily empty Grand Central Terminal beneath the headline “FED CUTS RATE TO NEAR ZERO; VIRUS TOLL SOARS.”
The woman walks through a refulgent, domed structure, composed of bands of various colors. She seems both vulnerable and resolute as she moves under this structure, its vibrancy contrasting so extremely with the surrounding architecture, its buoyancy countering the panic and dread summoned by the headline. She is walking toward darkness; Tomaselli blacked-out with acrylic paint the building’s archway in the distance. This form could be a void or a barrier that suggests there is no way out of this crisis; it evokes the trepidation many of us felt at the time, and still feel, as we face a distressing and bewildering future.
Art can be truly cathartic at times. For me, this was one such time. The conflicting emotions I was experiencing in isolation — withering fear and stubborn hope, alienation and the longing for communion, inwardness and empathy — were encapsulated in a single, clarifying work.
Fourteen works from this series (all gouache, collage, and archival inkjet print on watercolor paper) are on view in Tomaselli’s current exhibition at James Cohan Gallery. The exhibition, originally slated to open last May, was intended to be his first solo painting show in New York since 2014. Then the pandemic intervened. What has resulted, several months later, is a powerful, deeply meaningful array of new collages and eight virtuosic hybrid paintings (most completed or well underway before the pandemic) that fuse abstraction and representation to render visions that are at once marvelous and civically engaged. They are made of paint, leaves, tiny images cut out of magazine articles and advertisements, and — importantly — newspaper excerpts fashioned into myriad shapes, all sealed behind polished resin on wood panels. (As with most of the artist’s paintings, it’s tough to distinguish between painted forms and found objects.)
Tomaselli has long incorporated the news in his collages (he began his Times collage series in 2005). Now he has done the same with paintings, to remarkable effect.
“Untitled” (2020), whose black ground evokes deep space, features a colorful cluster of large circles, eight-pointed stars, oblong hoops, and various irregular shapes, along with small painted dots and circles resembling both pills and distant planets. Tiny photographic images of human hands and eyes, birds, flowers, and various objects fill the hoops and shapes, as do actual leaves, outlined in painted dots.
Newsprint is skillfully integrated in thin black and white circles, jutting wedges, and additional shapes that interact with the abundant colors as formal elements, but which can also be read. Some of the excerpts are straightforward (“WORST ROUT FOR WALL STREET SINCE 1987 CRASH”; “DOCTORS SOUND ALARM JOBS LOSSES SOAR”). Others are truncated and oblique (“the authority and a show of”) while still others shade into elliptical poetry (“The skyward in urban areas across the United States”). Orange, red, and yellow flames at the bottom recall California van painting and surfboard designs (Tomaselli grew up in Orange County) but also, perhaps, the wildfires that have so ravaged the state, exacerbated by climate change. At once cosmic and earthly, this exuberant painting — its carnivalesque colors and shapes evoking fireworks — is suffused with medical, political, ecological, and economic turmoil as well.
In another “Untitled” (2020) painting, what looks to be a dead songbird lies in a grassy flower patch beneath a blue sky. Its body consists of tiny photos of consumer goods, most made of plastic— a succinct comment on how humans are adversely affecting the ecosphere. Ascending (or maybe emitting) from the bird is a whirling array of interlacing rings, each chock-full of disparate images and objects, including green leaves partially painted bright red, tiny birds, hands, eyes, and strips of the Times. The painting seems to revel in sheer visual pleasure, its cyclonic welter both transfixing and alarming.
In “Cloud” (2019), a tornado-like form, comprised of rings in hues of blue, rises up in front of a nocturnal sky lined with trees at the bottom; the sky’s red glow, as if from a forest fire, is foreboding, maybe even apocalyptic. The “cloud” spews information-packed radial beams (birds, flowers, strips of the Times) in all directions. This is a scene of nature under assault.
Tomaselli’s incorporation of printed news in his paintings, long before the pandemic, now seems downright prescient, as so many of us have become newspaper-reading, television-watching, podcast-listening, website-scouring news junkies, desperate for knowledge and guidance.
It also contextualizes the work art historically, connecting Tomaselli’s paintings, for instance, with John Heartfield’s and Hannah Höch’s political photomontages, especially those made in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s.
The news topics are important — ranging from COVID-19 and the Trump administration’s follies and failures to climate change, racial justice, and financial mayhem — but so too is the “buzz,” as Tomaselli termed it to me, of the news, how it has become so pervasive and insistent, impinging on our thoughts, affecting our emotions, and even changing our bodies, as hearts race and blood boils.
This is prime territory for Tomaselli, who has long been interested in inducing heightened psychological states and alternative states of consciousness through art. In one painting (“Untitled,” 2020), two slightly askew circles, the larger one atop the smaller, consist of concentric bands of painted color, images, and Times texts. The dual circles pulsate in front of another glowing night sky, copiously dotted with smaller circles. The painting is at once wondrous and ominous. It is also both a concrete and found poem writ large, full of reeling sentences and phrases, most concerning the pandemic. Step up close to read the words. Step back to take everything in.
This work, with texts excised from the Times and given new shape and meaning, also invokes adventurous antecedents, notably William S. Burroughs’s many examples of so-called “cut-ups” in poems and novels (a technique purportedly introduced to him in 1959 in Paris by artist and writer Brion Gysin — with whom he had collaborated — along with any number of Dada and Fluxus artworks and posters).
Tomaselli’s Times collages, displayed in both of the gallery’s rooms, form a timeline of the past several, fraught months, while interacting with the paintings. It is fascinating to compare the original front pages of the Times (all readily available on the internet) — including what was chosen as news, given emphasis, and ultimately displayed via a collective effort involving writers, editors, and graphic designers — with Tomaselli’s altered versions.
In the March 19, 2020 Times the headline “U.S. SEEKS $500 BILLION IN CHECKS FOR TAXPAYERS” is far above a relatively benign photograph on the same page of a dour Senator Mitch McConnell striding through the Capitol. Conversely, Tomaselli’s “March 19, 2020” is just McConnell’s unnerving visage, right under the headline: a maniacal and diabolical Kentucky cyborg with a pixilated face shooting death rays from his evil eyes.
In “June 1, 2020,” Tomaselli alters the source photograph, of Black Lives Matter protesters in Brooklyn. Now you see just the protesters’ upraised hands protruding through surging blue water, as if in danger of drowning. The headline is “TWIN CRISES AND SURGING ANGER CONVULSE U.S.,” yet the artwork suggests, by my count, at least five crises: resurgent racism, escalating COVID numbers, all-consuming debt, lethal floodwaters arising from global warming, and political malfeasance threatening to overwhelm our democracy.
While the circumstances that scuttled Tomaselli’s painting show last spring were indeed awful, the artist and gallery were wise to bring together the paintings and the hot-off-the-press (so to speak) collages in this revamped version. Both bodies of work flesh out the vision of an excellent, highly imaginative artist fully engaged with these exceedingly trying and precarious times.
Fred Tomaselli continues at James Cohan Gallery (48 Walker Street, Manhattan) through November 21.