Sunday, October 3, 2010

Fred Tomaselli: "escapism was our dominant commodity."

"Field Guides," photocollage by Fred Tomaselli (2003)

The current issue of BOMB magazine features an interview with artist Fred Tomaselli, whose geometrically-arannged assemblages are both beautiful and provocative. Although his work doesn't draw from specific pop-culture images there is a free-wheeling use of bright color, strong line, and bold shape that echo the immediate impact of commercial advertising, and with reason; as a child in California his bedroom window looked out over the candy-apple colors of Disneyland.

His collages -- many with whirling, jewel-like appliques in a ground occupied by human figures -- are layered with acrylic, a gloss that enhances what Tomaselli refers to in the interview as his escapist art: "it seemed that escapism was our dominant commodity," he tells David Shields, whose recent book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010) is itself a kaleidoscope of thoughts about the disconnect between current writing and contemporary thought. Shields makes the case for a new approach to writing which is increasingly open to "unprocessed material": “randomness, openness to accident and serendipity; . . . criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity; . . . a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.” The internet as a new, random, reflexive source for the creative artist.

Here's an excerpt from Tomaselli's BOMB interview reflecting on America's burgeoning "culture of the unreal" in his childhood.

Fred Tomaselli California played a significant role in inventing and perfecting our “culture of the unreal,” and my sense of reality has been forever altered by growing up there. Back then, both the left and the right were actively manipulating reality in rather novel ways and a lot of those manipulations escaped like kudzu to infest the rest of America. On the right, you had the corporate-entertainment/government complex, which gave us Disneyland, Hollywood, Richard Nixon, and, of course, Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s masterful blending of entertainment and politics first succeeded in California. After he became president, our nation of toddlers would never again accept anything less than “happy talk” from its future leaders.

At roughly the same time you had post-Manson/Altamont California, which was not a very pretty place. You had the Symbionese Liberation Army literally going up in flames and throngs of burned-out hippies disappearing into the New Age, but all that seemed to be happening somewhere else, like in rural communes or on TV. What I mostly saw was a baroque mix of youth culture on the skids: coked-up disco freaks, gang bangers, bikers, flamboyant glam rockers, skuzzy stoners and, a bit later, punk rockers.

Like many disaffected, white, working-class youth at that time, I was a stoner (a hippie without ideology, I guess) and then I eventually morphed into a punk rocker. While I slogged through the big wipeout of the ’70s, another crash-and-burn was going on as modernism was coming undone. All that utopianism had been reduced to smoldering rubble and it seemed appropriate to dig into this trash heap of history and see if there was anything worth saving.

The one big common denominator in all of this was our culture of escapism. Even though serious artists weren’t supposed to make escapist art, it seemed that escapism was our dominant commodity—it was responsible for the shape this country was in. It was also somewhat responsible for the shape I was in, so I started there. ...
"Organism," photocollage by Fred Tomaselli (2005)

Tomaselli's careful constructions are a visual reflection of how unlimited choice can lead to a need for escape. Human figures are surrounded by galaxies of bright objects, about to be overwhelmed by a process of choice made no less random by the every object's apparent availability. In such a situation, how does the individual make critical decisions? Tomaselli's California childhood made it apparent that, in an unreal American culture at least, we could have it all. The realities of a new century, however, remind us that there are limits to everything: even in a seemingly infinite age of information, the individual, and the artist, retains the necessary ability to choose.

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