In Which an Artist Discusses Making a Particular Work
The world according to Fred Tomaselli is a dark, druggy, visually lurid place: a swirling dazzle of eye-popping data. Influenced equally by SoCal surfer culture and New York City trash-punk, Fred’s best-known work—highly detailed, post-pattern paintings incorporating prescription pills and hallucinogenic plants under a protective layer of resin—grapples with deep, philosophical questions like “What is consciousness?” and “Is perception real?” More recently, as in Night Music for Raptors, he’s meandered deeper into a natural world of flora and fauna and, well, owls, as I found out when we met at his studio in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.
THE BELIEVER: Night Music for Raptors, like much of your work, must have required meticulous work to make.
FRED TOMASELLI: It was a bit labor-intensive, and the four-month process was sometimes mind-numbingly repetitious, but that’s what I had to do in order to see what I needed to see. I began the piece by plotting out the two points that formed the center of each of the owl’s eyes. I then set up a mathematical system of expanding circles, which became the armature for thousands of photographs of birds’ eyes. Then I started gluing them down. I made micro-decisions along the way, but not as many as I made on the piece that came right before it.
BLVR: This painting emerged out of another one?
FT: Night Music was very different from the piece that came before it. That work, entitled Starling, arose out of the chaos of an abstract-expressionist background. I was splashing and slashing paint all over the panel and not knowing where I was going. Eventually, an image emerged, and even though I was satisfied with the end result, the whole process made me feel sort of mentally ill. Night Music was a way to calm myself down. Also, I was in the middle of prepping a twenty-year museum retrospective, which gave me a reason to revisit my geometric, minimalist work from the early ’90s. I noticed how, over time, my work had become increasingly dense, narrative, and imagistic. I wanted Night Music to be a kind of bridge between my earlier work and what I was doing now. I came upon this idea of making this owl out of two conjoining sets of concentric circles, and then having them radiate out to fill up the space of the picture. The two big eyes, incidentally, are the same size as two LP records, and I imagined them as two turntables seen from above.