At first glance, Fred Tomaselli's paintings, with their elegant black backgrounds, formal compositions, and lustrous, lacquerlike surfaces, could be taken for examples of Asian art—polished, with every piece in place. The surprise comes when one looks more closely and realizes that these extremely restrained paintings are inspired by legal and illegal drugs. The leaves on Tomaselli's trees are actual marijuana leaves, his twigs are from the ephedra plant (a source of "speed"), and his pinwheels and spirals are composed of colorful prescription pills. These are truly "controlled substances"—objects of desire placed temptingly near yet out of reach under layers of transparent resin.
Close inspection of Tomaselli's paintings can also uncover some insidious subplots, a seemingly decorative group of collaged birds is revealed to be in conflict, pecking at each other and causing minute splashes of painted red blood.
The artist’s dark side is more obvious in "Split Stalk," a marijuana plant that has been sliced down the middle and laid out horizontally root-to-root, with branches that end in painted red-veined eyeballs. Tomaselli plays discreetly with reality combining actual, photographic and painted elements almost imperceptibly.
Much art seen in galleries these days appears slipshod, as if its creators assume any artistic lack will be forgiven if they incorporate the right social theme. While Tomaselli’s utilization of drug imagery does, admittedly, give these finely tuned pieces an edge they might not otherwise have, it does not overshadow the effect of labor-intensive craft. In this case esthetics wins out.