…and this strangeness differentiates it from prettiness, which is no ordinary thing.” Fred Tomaselli 2008
In Keep Looking: Fred Tomaselli’s Birds, now on exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art, the artworks first soothe and attract, then disquiet and disturb. This show is part of a series featuring bird-related imagery which is held biennially in conjunction with a prominent yearly convention of birders in the Toledo area. While this is as good a pretext as any for bringing this work to the rust belt, it doesn’t begin to describe the importance and interest of this artist.
I have been a fan of Fred Tomaselli’s paintings for years, and looked forward to this golden opportunity to see them in person without buying a plane ticket (thanks TMA!) This show includes 5 paintings, a tapestry and a few assorted works on paper, all installed in Gallery 6 of the museum’s contemporary art wing.
The first thing you respond to in looking at a Tomaselli painting is its sheer obsessive and hallucinatory beauty. The paintings feature layers of meticulously collaged images covered in resin and then over-painted. The black backgrounds evoke night skies and acid trips. Though it isn’t mentioned in the accompanying museum text, it’s clear that Tomaselli is no stranger to altered states.
I loved all these paintings, but my favorite was Bird Battle (1997). The subdued palette and obsessive repetition of cutout birds with human eyes and (actual) hemp leaves put me in mind of some outsider visionary art. From a distance the painting delivers a pleasurable punch of decorative pattern. But as you draw near you see that this is a savage battle of all against all. Birds attack each other in the air and in the trees, with many lying newly dead on the ground. Tomaselli has distilled in one image all the beauty and all the cruelty of nature. In other pieces in this show, birds attack each other (Bird Mob), eat insects (Starling) and steal fruit (Migrant Fruit Thugs) but because the paintings are so intricately gorgeous you can’t look away. You must keep looking.
Keep Looking: Fred Tomaselli’s Birds is on exhibit until August 7. To see this must-see work and to get more information about hours and directions to the Toledo Museum of Art go here