Fred Tomaselli's exquisitely crafted works provide challenging mediations on the nexus of nature and artifice, beauty and pathology, in the contemporary world. From a distance, Tomaselli's Big Bird of 2004 appears to be some colourful exotic species, perched upon a tree branch against an ornately star-filled sky. Upon closer inspection, the bird dissolves into a myriad of hybrid parts, its body brimming with swarms of tiny flowers, eyes and beaks. It wavers between natural wonder and mutant monster, an image that is aesthetically rich but also somewhat unsettling.
Over the past two decades, Tomaselli has developed an innovative signature style of hybrid collage-paintings. He has succeeded in bringing back notions of craft and decorative pleasure that had been disinherited from the history of avant-garde art, particularly as he matured as an artist in the 1980s when conceptually, politically-charged works dominated the scene. Yet he employs these seemingly decorative techniques to decidedly critical ends, explaining that it is 'my ultimate aim to seduce and transport the viewer into space of these pictures while simultaneously revealing the mechanics of that seduction' (F. Tomaselli, quoted in Fred Tomaselli: Monsters of Paradise, Edinburgh 2004, p. 43).
His method involves the careful and laborious assemblage of a wide range of elements from photos to plants to pills suspended in layers of clear resin and acrylic onto the surface of a wood panel that he lays out on the studio floor. In Big Bird, he mingles tiny photographs cut out from nature field guides, painted abstract arabesques, and real pressed leaves, all embalmed together below the work's smooth clear surface. Authentic remnants of nature therefore collide with the hyper-reality of photographic details and the transmutation of natural forms into paint, calling into question the stability of our notions of nature and the real. On the one hand, we are offered the abundance of an Edenic paradise, while on the other it seems that true nature has been overtaken by simulacrum. The birds body is a deviant proliferation, an excess of natural forms, its beak composed of a plethora of other tiny beaks, its feathers morphed into tiny blossoms, and its eye surrounded by a sea of multicoloured animal eyes that stare disquietingly at the viewer. His meticulous cut-outs also suggest the zealous accumulations of the collector, the way the rational framework of categorization and collecting can give way to dark obsession.
Like the hybrid visual syntax of Big Bird, Tomaselli draws on an eclectic range of historical and cultural influences that he synthesizes through his unique form of image-making. They are imbued with the intricacy of Persian miniatures, the cosmic meditative maps of Tibetan mandalas, the compulsive repetition of outsider art, the profusion and elegance of Rococo, the slickness of California Finish Fetish culture, and the swirling escapist hallucinations of psychedelia. Tomaselli came of age in the 70s in Southern California, too late to experience the hedonistic idealism of the 60s, but witness to its fall-out in punk rebellion. Part of the punk scene, he credits his experiments with drugs as partly leading to his explorations of themes of escapism, chemical and otherwise, in his later works. Having grown up near Disneyland, its paradigm of illusion and artifice seemed more natural than the nature itself, also indelibly marking his work.
In 1985, Tomaselli moved to New York, eschewing the dominant East Village scene for Williamsburg. Within the urban landscape, he became an avid gardener (first to camouflage his marijuana plants, whose leaves he at times used in his work), and has claimed that his work started getting good when he recognized the importance of integrating this experience into his work. Indeed, he collects flora from his garden to use as materials of his art, such as the leaves in the present work. Finding that birds flocked to his garden, he became further drawn to avian motifs in his work, of which Big Bird is a paradigm. These ever-fluttering, flying creatures have also provided powerful metaphors in art for the flights of the unconscious mind, as in many of Max Ernst's influential Surrealist works. In the title of Tomaselli's 1996 work, All the Birds I can Remember, All the Drugs I can Remember Taking, he explicitly connected the theme of drug-induced escapism with that of bird-watching, both suggesting in different ways imaginative flights of the mind.
As Tomaselli reveals, 'I always start with the shape of nature but nature is riven with infection, pathology, pain and pollution. We live in a mutating landscape of rapidly hybridizing bits on the level of DNA and binary code, in the cross-pollination of global instant-access culture, of Eastern and Western pictorial traditions, and vernacular and high art references. We see the world through a scrim of ideologies and technologies and the crackling static of chemicals and electronic media. Purity is a myth. Generalized hybridity has produced an even more generalized reality slippage. My work aspires to be a window on this condition'(Ibid.). Big Bird, in many ways, appears as a herald of this world view.