The drugs do work in Fred Tomaselli’s psychedelic studies of paradise found and lost, says Waldemar Januszczak
What I do know is that consciousness-altering ambitions lie at the heart of the aesthetic experience, and always have done. A few years ago, I was making a film about ancient rock art in Zimbabwe. Scattered about the Matopo Hills was one of the world’s most important outdoor galleries of prehistoric painting. It was horribly difficult to reach, because of all the climbing, scrambling, potholing and endurance walking involved. None of these prehistoric artists worked on the first available rock. They painted on particular surfaces for particular reasons: deep in caves, underneath peculiarly shaped boulders, hanging from scary overhangs. A pattern began dimly to emerge. It is repeated in prehistoric art the world over, from the deep-core cave paintings of the Dordogne to the Aboriginal bush scrapings of the Australian outback. The first art was made at locations where communication with the spirit world was thought to be easiest: where the water found a way out, where the deepest caves were located, where the gateways were to whatever lay beyond.
We had a couple of boffins along with us, who had been researching the use of primitive narcotics by the shaman artists who painted the crowds, the animals, the hands, the geometry on these busy cosmic rocks. The boffins talked us through the deliberate pursuit of a trance-like state by the first artists through dancing and drug-taking. It is easy to ima-gine how a hallucinatory reality induced by drugs might, in their minds, constitute a voyage into the world of the spirits. They wanted to enter the other world because only there, at reality’s deepest levels, could they affect the patterns of nature: bring rain, avert plague, increase fertility, improve the hunting. I learnt much on that portentous filming trip to the paradisiacal outdoor museum of Zimbabwe, but two conclusions stood out. The first was the absolute centrality of the artist in the earliest societies. And the second was the art- historical significance of drugs. Which brings us back to Tomaselli.
He seems to have been a dabbler in narcotics for most of his adult life, and admits it merrily in his catalogue essay for this exhil- arating handful of trippy paintings at the White Cube gallery, which I recommend as a provocative way to kick-start the new aesthetic year. Even without the catalogue essay, it would be absolutely obvious that the psychedelic imagination displaying itself here so kaleidoscopically is no stranger to hash brownies. Besides, Tomaselli’s “paintings” often have actual narcotics — pills, capsules, tablets, weeds and cannabis stalks — embedded in them. Drugs and hallucinations are literally what they are made of. That is how old-fashioned he is.
The first image we encounter is what seems to be a fabulous little print of a collection of tropical birds, taken from the page of a naturalist’s guide to somewhere like Costa Rica or Tahiti; some pre-tsunami paradise with palm trees, beaches and hibiscus. The birds are jewel-like: primary- coloured, uplifting and totally different from the little brown ones we get over here. It is only when you lean right in and examine them carefully that you see they have been assembled by the artist from bits and pieces of detailing cut out of fashion magazines: a zip for a wing; the drawstring from some knickers for a nape. These particular birds of paradise have been artificially created. They are Versace birds. But that hasn’t stopped them being beautiful.
Tomaselli, who is Californian, tells us that he grew up “so close to Disneyland that I could sit on my roof and watch Tinker Bell fly through the night sky. Artificial, immersive, theme-park reality was such a normal part of my everyday life that when I saw my first natural waterfall, I couldn’t believe it didn’t involve plumbing or elec-tricity”. Thus, he explains that fruitful confusion between artificially achieved transportative states and their natural equivalents, which lies so interestingly at the crossroads of his work. I think I now see where his interest in reality- altering chemicals comes from; why there is such a fine line in his art between the ecstatic and the monstrous; why the paradisiacal slides so often into the hellish; why tsunamis are as natural in paradise as the four-coloured bush shrike.
Deeper into the show, among the “paintings”, the birds grow larger and weirder, until they are almost bigger than you. I was reminded of the nightmarish disruptions of scale in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, where small things become huge and prey on us. Bosch is a good parallel, because if he had lived in an era of drug-taking, you would have assumed him to be a drug-taker, wouldn’t you? It is that air of all-night anxiety there is to him, the refusal of his dreams to finish. Like Bosch, Tomaselli makes big images out of zillions of little ones. There is lots of creepy fun to be had peering more deeply into his “paintings” and seeing what they are actually made of. All manner of colourful stuff — pills, plants, porn pics — has been arranged into complex patterns and preserved inside calm pools of perfectly see-through resin, like precious multicoloured fossils.
Every society ever to have a religion has tried to envisage some sort of paradise. It seems to be one of the most fundamental of all human urges. And, naturally, art has played a leading role in visualising this desire. Tomaselli is a psychedelic Gauguin who doesn’t need to voyage to Tahiti because the mescaline in LA is cheaper. He is a marijuana Matisse who discovers Moroccan colours without the need for Morocco. And he is a drugged-out Monet who sits and stares, not at the constantly shimmering surface of his transportative lily pond, but at the chemical-coloured firework display exploding, a tad frighten- ingly, like London’s new-year horizon, inside his head.
There is an image here, called Heavy Metal Drummer, of a grotesque naked figure with scores of flaying arms banging away at a huge array of drums while beams of spooky light radiate from his torso. It is so crazily ugly that it frightened me, let alone the surrounding pretty birds. No Indian deity ever drummed this fiercely. The picture is worrying enough from a distance. But as you get closer, it grows weirder and weirder. The body is actually a collage of countless severed human bits. Thousands of insane eyes stare out at you from the wriggling biomass. A fantastic amount of work has gone into creating this psychedelic monster. Disneyland has gone all serious on us, and turned its attentions to the dark origins of the cosmos. Wow.