Fred Tomaselli is a regular reader of the New York Times – with a difference. Since 2005, when his eye was caught by a front-page photograph of Bernie Ebbers, the disgraced chief executive of WorldCom, he has used acrylics and gouache to transform images in newspapers into strange, brilliantly coloured compositions. The picture of Ebbers reminded Tomaselli of Masaccio’s 15th-century fresco, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” – he was depicted gripping his wife’s hand, both of them reeling from his conviction for an $11-billion accounting fraud – so he placed a heavenly aureole behind Ebbers’s head and surrounded the couple with flowers. “Guilty”, a jokey, peculiar image, was the first in a series he called “The Times”; he named most works in the series for the date of the edition from which it was taken. With his revisions, Tomaselli draws attention to the way news, far from being neutral, is shaped and edited.
An exhibition at the White Cube gallery in London centres on 20 of these works made in the last three years, and also includes a selection of his other works on paper, among them a series of photograms, photographic prints made without a camera in a technique made famous by Man Ray and László Maholy-Nagy. It is “The Times” series, however, that has garnered the headlines. Tomaselli is not entirely surprised. “These works freeze time,” he says. “They’ve become a day that resonates on the wall forever.”
Though Tomaselli has lived in Brooklyn since the mid-1980s, it’s difficult to miss the psychedelic whiff of southern California permeating his pictures. Born in Santa Monica in 1956, he spent his formative years on the fringes of the Los Angeles punk and New Wave scenes (the influence of which you can see in his almost-anarchic works from the 1990s and 2000s). His fascination for low-brow subjects like funfairs and arcades and his love of the decorative did not go down well at art school while he was there in the early 1980s, a time when the art world was in thrall to minimalism and language-based conceptualism. Tomaselli didn’t care. He found like-minded souls in Jim Shaw, the late Mike Kelley and a number of radical artists active in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s. Like them, Tomaselli freely plundered and subverted images from popular culture.
He sometimes jokes that he is “anti-modernist”. Although he admires the work of 20th-century artists Sol LeWitt, Robert Irwin and James Turrell, he often draws on pre-modern imagery and techniques, with work that evokes early Renaissance painting, 18th-century botanical drawing and sublime Romantic landscapes. You can see his interest in the past most clearly in his photograms, but it’s also visible in “The Times”. “As I began the series,” he says, “I saw the impending death of newspapers and perhaps this series is an extended elegy to them.”
“Sunday, July 31, 2016” (2016)
Some of Tomaselli’s interventions have an obvious logic. One work in the show, with the headline “Iran Agrees to Detailed Nuclear [Outline]” (above), shows a group of officials, including the then Secretary of State, John Kerry, wearing anti-glare goggles, gazing down into the nuclear furnace that is the Sun. Others are less easy to read. In the original photograph illustrating an article titled “A Sickened Body as Cancer Weapon”, an American lung-cancer patient, Steve Cara, lies on a table in a hospital examination room. He had benefitted from an experimental treatment that harnesses the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer. In Tomaselli’s reworking, he floats alone in a hallucinatory cosmos, with patterns reminiscent of Mughal embroidery unfurling from his supine body. There is something serene, almost mystical, about the revised image, which hints at an entirely different inner world co-existing alongside that of the fast-paced newsroom.
“Tuesday, April 27, 2010” (2016)
One Tuesday in April 2010, Tomaselli took a story with the headline, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint” and responded to the image, a PowerPoint diagram about the US military’s strategy in Afghanistan, with a complex Cubist-inspired design. The article is a report on the amount of time the military dedicates to making PowerPoint presentations – an activity even its top brass regarded as ludicrous (note the caption, which quotes General Stanley A. McChrystal: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”). Tomaselli’s wry response illustrates the story even better than the obscured diagram underneath, which the author of the article describes as “a bowl of spaghetti”. When he started this series, Tomaselli intended to show that the process by which the news is made is often subjective. In an era of alternative facts and fake news, however, he is keen to declare his respect and support for the New York Times. Much like the performance art and collage of early 20th-century Dadaists, he thinks of his work as a dialogue with the Times’s editors, a commentary rather than a criticism.
“Bloom #9” (2014)
In the 1990s, he started experimenting with the photogram. To make this one, Tomaselli, a keen gardener, placed a leaf from his garden directly onto light-sensitive paper, then exposed it to light. (Some years ago, you would have been more likely to see the leaf of a marijuana plant in his pictures than the legal variety now on show.) He then painstakingly hand-coloured the print with gouache to produce an explosive, surprising “bloom”. Tomaselli says that the photograms are “a necessary corrective to my preoccupation with mass media. They are quiet, personal and informed solely by the shape of nature.” And yet, their colours are as brilliant and unexpected as those in “The Times”.
“Chemical Celestial Portraits, Times Arrow Version (detail, Janine)” (2014)
To make this series of “chemical celestial portraits of inner and outer space”, Tomaselli would first note down his sitter’s birthday, astrological sign and the various drugs, legal and illegal, they could remember taking over their lifetime. Then he would create an unconventional portrait, a sort of map of their physical and mental altered states, by making a photogram from sugar and pills or, as with this portrait of Janine, by using collage, coloured pencils, gouache and graphite and ink on paper. Close inspection shows the detailed and careful construction of what from a distance looks like, by Tomaselli’s standards, a rather simple image. It is reminiscent of a work he made in 1987, a hanging sculpture of the constellations that glowed with blue light as the sky outside darkened. The cosmos is often invoked in his work as a metaphor for escape or interiority. “Looking up at the heavens is one of man’s oldest ways of turning his back on the world,” he says.
Fred Tomaselli: Paper White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London, until May 13th