ARTFORUM
 January 2006

“Ecstasy”

By Erik Davis

…And yet many contemporary artists produce visionary material without leaning on pop culture. Whatever its satiric undertow, Ye Olde Ruin, 2003–2004, one of two immense Paul Noble drawings included in “Ecstasy,” offers an unabashedly fantastic otherworld of abstract machines, hermetic eggs, and Boschean play. But the show’s most explicitly visionary art belongs to the Brooklyn artist Fred Tomaselli, who continues to refine and intensify his bold explorations of collage, visual rhythm, and pinwheel psychedelia. Like Paine and Friedman, Tomaselli draws attention to the actual things—the pills and organic materials—that mediate psychoactive experience. But as he painstakingly arranges these things and others into the thick resin that coats his hybrid collage-paintings, he dematerializes them as well, revealing their potential to become elements of mind and pattern, like the string figures in Harry Smith movies or the inner-eye whirligigs captured in his recent Millennium Phosphene Bloom, 2005.

Another remarkable new work by Tomaselli, 2005’s Organism, shows a man with transparent skin plunging headless into a crystal chaos of stars, spiderwebs, and fractured mandalas. The piece seems to literally embody the difficult human transition between meat and mental ecstasy, but its full resonance only becomes clear when compared to the similarly semitransparent bodies in the work of Alex Grey, another Brooklyn artist and one of the most dominant painters in the largely marginalized world of contemporary psychedelic art. Though Grey’s art graces rave fliers and New Age calendars, he is no naïf—the declarative intensity of his strongest paintings depends in part on his sly appropriation of textbook medical imagery, whose hyperreal rhetoric paradoxically lends an air of actuality to his visionary bodies. But Grey is too much of a mystic literalist for his work to ever make it to the walls of MoCA; transcendence, even if it is just a trick of immanence, is still taboo. Whereas Grey’s transformed figures confidently ascend into rainbow mind-lattices, Tomaselli’s organism plunges into the fractured rag-and-bone shop of the head, delivering the more assimilable message that ecstasy is rarely far from the abject.

Erik Davis is a San Francisco-based writer and author of the forthcoming book The Visionary State (Chronicle Books, 2006).