Fred Tomaselli's The Times
by Sally Wright Day
From the November, 2014 issue
That you're reading this magazine may mean you're a news junkie. That this publication honors original art-on its cover for thirty-eight years may mean you're an art lover. If so, have I got an exhibit for you.
Fred Tomaselli's The Times at the University of Michigan Museum of Art is a fix for your inner addict, a wild party for your eyes, and a jab to your brain.
A self-admitted news junkie, Tomaselli takes pages of the New York Times and tarts up the Old Gray Lady with bright, surreal reinterpretations. Sacrilege! To deface the sanctified and vilified NYT? Especially amid the news about the death of news? It's part of the point: Tomaselli paints with gouache right on its pages, creating meta-commentary in some pieces, pure whimsy in others. But it's not defilement: It's a citizen-artist reacting with his tools to the reporting of world craziness. And it's utterly captivating.
Take March 9, 2014. The all-caps headline says "Top Russians face sanctions by U.S. for Crimea crisis." The lead photo shows a helicopter in the background, its blades hanging limply. In the foreground is Russian president Vladimir Putin accompanied by one man in military garb and two in suits. But Tomaselli has painted a naked woman into the group and overlaid each face with a jarringly bright balaclava-the same mask worn by the unidentified military men in Crimea and Ukraine. Creepy and forbidding, it perfectly highlights the Jedi mind trick-"this is not the Russian army you think you see"-that Putin has been pulling.
Or take Oct. 9, 2012. The photo shows Mitt Romney offering a handshake to three kids Tomaselli has painted in ghost costumes. The caption reads in part: "VOTERS OF THE FUTURE Mitt Romney stopped at a school in Fairfield, Va."
Nov. 14, 2010 features one of my personal heroes: Aung San Suu Kyi. Under the all-caps headline, "Myanmar junta frees dissident, crowds gather," is the subhead: "'So much to tell you.'" Suu Kyi's photo is upside down
under superimposed pictures of cut, curved, and sharpened prison bars. Photos of hands reaching through the bars, some feeling the spears' points, repeat around the piece.
The exhibit fills the Taubman gallery, with most of the works small enough that viewers must stand close to read them. The irony in so many of the pieces is a treat, a shot of dopamine when you find it. When I can't find it, I'm curious: In Guilty, why does businessman Bernie Ebbers' head explode into flowers? What do all the cut-out eyes mean?
Many have already been bewitched by The Times. It was one of the draws that brought around 1,500 people to UMMA's three-hour "After Dark" event just days after it and another exhibit opened in October. You can get your fix until it closes January 25.
[Originally published in November, 2014.]
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