Back in the 1970s, when Fred Tomaselli was a kid in California, he and his friends made their own skateboards. Tomaselli’s job was pouring the resin, that top coat of lacquer that sealed the designs and color on the board’s surface.
Slide forward more than 30 years and he is still the resin guy, and that lacquer is the vehicle for complex, ornate paintings reminiscent of Eastern and Western art traditions such as Renaissance frescoes, Islamic mosaics and American quilts.
At the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, when one takes those first steps into the upstairs gallery, it’s like stumbling into a shrine adorned with large-scale images that are dense with detail on dark backgrounds.
Viewing them from a distance is impressive enough, like “contemporary art meets The Cloisters” or stained-glass windows in a cathedral. But when one moves in closer and sees the materials in these paintings, shock-rocker Alice Cooper’s 1975 song comes to mind: “Welcome to my nightmare, I think you’re gonna like it, I think you’re gonna feel you belong.”
WHERE: Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Through June 13. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, until 9 p.m. on Thursday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
HOW MUCH: Admission is free, donations are suggested
MORE INFO: 580-8080 or tang.skidmore.edu, where you'll find three video interviews with artist Fred Tomaselli.
Embedded in the resin, forming the exquisite designs, imagery and figures, there is an astounding multitude of incongruous objects: prescription and over-the-counter pills and capsules; real mushrooms and the real leaves and stems of plants; magazine cutouts of birds and animals; and illustrations of human anatomy.
“Fred Tomaselli,” a two-decade survey of paintings, two-dimensional works. drawings and photographs, was organized by the Tang and the Aspen Art Museum, where the exhibit debuted last summer. From the Tang, it travels in October to New York’s Brooklyn Museum.
Borrowed from Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the 12-foot-long “Echo, Wow and Flutter” (2000) is a dizzying Op-Art piece, as chains of pills form endless spirals that make one think of DNA, stars and planets, soundwaves or the pulse of a human heart.
With pills and leaves buried in the resin and images of pills and leaves painted on top of the resin, there is a 3-D effect in many of his works. In others, colorful cut-out shapes arranged on black shiny surfaces reminded me of Colorforms, a children’s art kit.
“Migrant Fruit Thugs” (2006), an acrylic, gouache and resin work nine feet in height, is a resplendent tapestry-like image of long-tailed tropical birds and purple fig-like fruits and vines, all created from leaves and cutouts from flower and veggie catalogs.
The longer your Tomaselli pilgrimage, the more mind-blowing the messages. While his paintings certainly have unknown personal meanings, for the viewer, there are unsettling themes related to the underworld of drugs and addiction, escape from reality and human disconnect with nature.
Many pieces can be admired for their technique and references to the decorative arts.
All kinds of pills and capsules of different colors and shapes are inlaid in resin in vertical strips in “Rug” (1995), and in “Super Plant” (1994), real cannabis leaves and blue bell-shaped flowers are arranged in a graceful, genteel pattern that could appear on Granny’s finest English china.
Curious about Tomaselli? Take a seat at a gallery table and spend some time with the hefty exhibit catalog. In his Q&A interview with Tang curator Ian Berry, Tomaselli, who lives in Brooklyn, reveals how Catholic imagery, punk music and Disneyland informed his work.
We find out that the artist dabbled in drugs and did some dangerous things while on drugs, but was never a drug addict. An amateur naturalist, Tomaselli’s interest in gardening happened while growing pot in Los Angeles.
“Fred Tomaselli” runs through Sunday, June 13, the weekend of SaratogaArtsFest.
During the four-day event, Skidmore College is one of the primary venues, with events at seven locations, including the Tang’s rooftop and the new Zankel Music Center. At 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 12, the Tang will host a panel discussion about public sculpture in Saratoga Springs, led by curator Berry and Anthony Cafritz, executive director of Salem Art Works.
After you’ve been riding high on Tomaselli’s resin, go downstairs and experience “La Montana Rusa,” a large roller coaster-like sculpture made from pink bed mattresses by Los Carpinteros, a pair of internationally exhibited artists from Havana, Cuba. “Opener 19: Los Carpinteros,” which includes 13 of their witty watercolors, runs through Aug. 7.