Fred Tomaselli Is Grooved Out, Man

“Fred Tomaselli: The Times,” at Orange County Museum of Art, is the first Southern California solo exhibition of the artist's work in 15 years, but it posits a Hunter S. Thompson stoner's nihilism about pharmaceuticals and politics that made a lot more sense 45 years ago. Presented by chief curator Dan Cameron, with a limited print commentary, the work is accomplished, often striking and well-chosen, but ultimately, it feels regressive and stalled in the past, despite its eye-catching beauty.

The tip-off is right at the opening with two portraits of Tomaselli's friends, Portrait of Paul and Portrait of Jim and Vivian: Declining to feature anything so gauche as poses or actual faces, the pictures are composed of petite constellations of white dots, nervous-system starscapes on a black background, a glut of drug names (legal and not) glowing in their darkness. Unlike a standard portrait, we're not privy to the subject's social standing, but we do get an idea of what heals them or dulls their senses. The artist's self-portrait, All the Bands I Can Remember Seeing and All the Extinct Vertebrates in North America Since 1492, is less fascinating reality than simple, list-y biography. The ephemeral quality of good bands is a questionable comparison to an environmental die-off, but Tomaselli has great taste in music, running the gamut between King Sunny Ade and Circle Jerks.

Tomaselli's full-sized works are all entrancing, if not mildly repetitive in their obsessions: Quilt is a naked human form built of faded collage squares of blue-jean crotches, zippers, and the collars and sleeves of jackets, the background a blue version of the same, surrounded by a black resin border of real hemp and tiny painted flames. After Oct 16, 2010 is made of pot, acrylic and resin, a cut-up collage of consumerist crap—air freshener, soda, tires and hand tools—swirling into an Inferno of capitalist culture. Similarly, the cranium in the center of the painting The Head With Flowers coughs up a cascade of internal organs, colored blossoms and . . . more hemp leaves.

The majority of the exhibition features front pages of The New York Times, the center photos altered by Tomaselli with collage and gouache, some of it an attempt to address grievances by manipulating the visages of politicians and corrupt business leaders: President Barack Obama as a black-headed spermatozoa accompanying a painted collage of the Supreme Court resembling a fleshy hydra of grinning maggots; printed on a sheet of watercolor paper perforated to suggest tabs of acid, former WorldCom CEO Bernard J. Ebbers' head explodes in a Mardi Gras mask of color, his wife grimly holding his glowing hand, one of her eyes sparking like a Star Trek Borg (Guilty, 2005); Russian President Vladimir Putin has been painted over as a nude woman wearing a Pussy Riot balaclava. Others are an effort to obscure pain with a Mondrian wash of color: a woman, her body immobile and destroyed by E. coli bacteria, becomes a Rubik's Cube of flamboyant little squares on a hospital bed; a protester kicks in a window that has been painted to look like stained glass.

The artist's punk anti-war sentiments ornament the dim prospect of a black-and-white world by touching it up with primary shades: A specialist ambushed in Afghanistan rushes the camera and bursts into light—his stance reminiscent of Ken Russell's Altered States finale, William Hurt slamming his fists into the walls of his hallway—fighting to regain his humanity, and in Dec. 12, 2012, masked workers assemble the war-torn fragments of human beings on a conveyor belt. There's also a deft commentary on the distractive quality of sports: Soccer players cheer as they're consumed by flame, heads painted over as skulls, the victory cup held aloft as spirals of blood spray and curl and splash out of its inside.

It's Aug. 10, 2011, with its brooms as oversized paint brushes splashing a rainbow over blackness, that sums up Tomaselli's world-view far better than I can: A Pollyanna with a paintbrush, he's covering over the uncomfortable, the difficult to address or reform, instead of accepting them at face value. While artists have historically obscured the ugly, what Tomaselli is doing isn't altogether different from someone watching the alternate world of FOX News because that manipulated universe is more comfortable than the complex one he lives in. It's the politics of engagement through disengagement, a blind wish fulfillment in place of actual action. It makes a certain amount of sense, of course: When faced with wars, political corruption, racist murders, environmental collapse, drought, beheadings by religious fanatics, financial destruction . . . doesn't escape sound like the perfect solution? Problem is, Tomaselli's art is like a bag of Cheetos to a stoned man. It brings a smile, but it's still junk food.

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