The Eyes Have It


A gallery full of frankly gorgeous mixed-media paintings that are literally steeped in mood-altering devices--what better treat on a lazy summer day?

While many viewers will be familiar with New York artist Fred Tomaselli, his work has a marvelously heightened allure when viewed en masse, as in "The Urge to be Transported"--a co-production of the Center for the Arts Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco and the Huntington Beach Art Center, where it remains through Sept. 1.

In the early '80s, while still living in Southern California, Tomaselli began using psychoactive drugs, both legal and illegal, to make patterns and images evocative of both retinal effects and the explosive synaptic activity in the brain.

Luminous and mesmerizing against expansive black backgrounds, the patterns are contemporary equivalents of 19th century transcendental landscapes, implicitly linking the act of vision and the natural world with larger, quasi-mystical powers.

In "Flavor Burst," Tomaselli organizes hemp leaves, ephedra (the now-banned ingredient of synthetic Ecstasy) and mushrooms into a scattering of different-sized "flowers" radiating from a network of "stems" that simulate neural patterns. The synaesthesia suggested by the title is part of the artist's all-embracing view of the pursuit of pleasure as a transcendent state.

The vertiginous pattern of "Black and White Allover" is made up of variously sized pills (aspirin, antacid and so forth). Repeated, slightly irregular rows of different-sized white circles produce a pulsing optical effect--the spacey flip side of a throbbing headache.

"Green on Red"--the title recalls modernist abstraction as well as a chemical high--consists of a "landscape" of overlapping dried hemp leaves framed by a broad swath of red paint. By juxtaposing the sun-kissed, dappled pattern of tan and brown leaves with the harsh quality of flat red paint, Tomaselli mingles "organic" and "synthetic" highs for a single heady burst of retinal delight.

A few of the pieces incorporate representational landscapes--such as the kitschy view of Pecos National Forest in "Double Landscape"--to evoke both the immediate, abstract optical effects engendered by a natural scene and the way we process them into stereotypical formats. The tension between "pure," unmediated experience and human expectations, habits and memories produces a keen shock of recognition--a skeptical, contemporary equivalent of the spiritually motivated sublimity of the 19th century.

It's no wonder that much has been written about the relationship of Tomaselli's work to the classic experience of art as a transformative experience. (Renny Pritikin's excellent catalog essay provides some of this context.) Encountering art that takes a hollow truism and makes it absolutely fresh is one of the great pleasures of looking and living in the late 20th century.


I spent a couple of weeks last August traveling to a music festival in Britain with a bunch of Deadheads blasting their endless tapes from the bus speakers and bemoaning Jerry Garcia's recent death at every meal, and since then the very mention of the Grateful Dead has been enough to make me reach for my poison pen.

But "Dead on the Wall: Grateful Dead and Deadhead Iconography From 30 Years on the Bus"--also at the center through Sept. 1--is not just a dumping ground for pop relics. It deals with the band and its zealous pilgrims as a cultural phenomenon, one of several youth-fueled contemporary movements that have created feelings of ecstatic communion among strangers.

The intensity of this bonding experience--akin to the mental states induced by deep religious belief, fasting, hallucinatory drugs, sleep deprivation or some combination of the above--can be hard for outsiders to comprehend. But communal mystical experiences have long predated the specific influence of the Grateful Dead and their improvisatory music.

Significantly, although the phenomenon of following the band on tour and attending dozens of shows began in the '60s, it thrived decades after conventional wisdom decreed that most turn in your bandanna for a briefcase.

While many Deadheads fit the barefoot-and-feckless stereotype, others took time off from middle-class jobs to hang out with people who shared their belief in a musical environment distinct from the mercenary world of commercial rock.

Guest curated by Deadhead Chris Cole with center programs director Tyler Stallings, the show has plenty of stuff to look at: portraits of the band, snapshots of the crowd, cheerfully ghastly artwork, gewgaws, signs, clothing, ticket stubs, commemorative stamps issued by distant countries, homemade tape lists, performance videos and atmospheric professional videos about Deadhead culture.

To be sure, the trappings of hippie culture associated with the Dead--fanciful, scruffy clothing; goofy decals; trinkets and travails--have become part of mass culture, claimed by virtually everyone who was alive in the '60s.

But "Dead on the Wall" doesn't just supply instant nostalgia; it also feeds the head.

The show treats the Deadheads as a sociological entity with roots stretching into such areas as the 19th century illustrations for the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" (inspiration for the skull-and-roses designs of graphic artists Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley), Third World traditions of jamming and spinning and such anti-rational, anti-materialistic art forms of this century as Dadaism and Happenings.

It turns out that by the mid-1850s, the word "deadhead" meant "one who goes free to a place of entertainment." Although the Ticketmaster logo on tickets seems out of whack with the group's ideals, freedom was the operative word. Deadheads openly made and traded bootleg tapes (a practice approved by the band) of music that was itself free from structural constraints.

Ah, had I only been aware of all the auxiliary details expounded on in the accompanying brochure and wall texts, I might have looked more kindly on my fellow bus mates. Sorry, guys. I didn't realize how potent a universe you inhabit.

* "Fred Tomaselli: The Urge to be Transported" and "Dead on the Wall: Grateful Dead and Deadhead Iconography From 30 Years on the Bus" continue through Sept. 1 at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 530 Main St. Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; noon-8 p.m. Thursday; noon-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sunday. $3 general admission, $2 for students and seniors. (714) 374-1650.

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