A self-described ‘news junkie’, Fred Tomaselli reads The New York Times religiously. As a maker of collages − both on paper and in large-scale wall works that suspend cut-up images and actual objects in resin − Tomaselli draws parallels between his work and everyday newspapers. ‘I tend to see myself as a kind of conductor overseeing a choir of nameless voices singing through artifacts’, he says. ‘Newspapers, with their army of editors, writers, fact-checkers and photographers, seem to embody a similar kind of cultural collectivity.’
‘I may initially depend on the collectivity of the newsroom, but in these works, I get the last word.’
‘Banner Year’ is one of a series of works on paper based on the front pages of The New York Times, which the artist began during the administration of President George W. Bush upon realising that the critical comments he scrawled on his morning paper might have artistic potential. He began using collage, ink, coloured pencil, gouache, acrylic paint and digital technologies to reprint and rework the images featured on front-page news.
The works in ‘Banner Year’ include January 7, 2021, in which a photograph of rioters scaling the US Capitol walls is transformed into an image of floating figures rising from a sea of flames beneath the blaring, all-caps headline ‘TRUMP INCITES MOB’; April 14, 2021, an above-the-fold image of US soldiers helping a wounded comrade that has been almost entirely overpainted with images of vines and flowers, beneath the text ‘Biden Sets End Date for Nation’s Longest War’; and August 17, 2021, which repositions a photograph of Barry – a beloved owl with a ‘people-friendly personality’, who died in New York’s Central Park – under the banner ‘FACING AFGHAN CHAOS, BIDEN DEFENDS EXIT’ to juxtapose two tragedies, one individual and local, the other affecting millions globally.
‘Sometimes the ironies and rhymes around juxtaposed content forces me to respond in kind. At other times, I need to exercise my cosmic sensibility and force it to co-exist with the grim news of the day. After all, these works are not just a deep dive into world events, they are also an escape from these events through the making of art. Whatever this is, it’s not the same as fake news. It starts as news, but after it passes through my head, it becomes something else. My hands do the rest of the thinking.’
Sometimes, Tomaselli’s interventions are inspired by the content of the newsprint photograph, at others, they stem from an internal impulse he admits he does not thoroughly understand. In his most recent works, the artist says his engagement with the newspaper has become deeper and more experimental: ‘This last year has found me “editing” the front page of The New York Times with a newfound freedom. I’m also no longer wedded to the photo that was originally tied into the headline. I can now search anywhere on the original front page to find a source photo that best calls for intervention. Sometimes these photos are tiny thumbnails that appear at the bottom of the print edition and have nothing to do with the headline.’
Hierarchies of importance, insinuated by image location and size, are thus flipped on their heads. This way of working sets up surprising kinds of frictions; images originally unconnected to the headlines resonate in different ways when newly joined together.
‘I never use Photoshop and my editing is primarily done using a printer, an X-acto knife and glue. My edits and process are transparent. It’s a lot like the way pre-digital paste up crews once put publications together. But whatever I decide, the printed part in the final work is always sourced from the original front page.’
‘I began this batch of work just prior to what has been referred to as “one of the most consequential elections in US history”. I kept at it through the insurrection and beyond. During this time, we dealt with our unprecedented health and climate emergency; with our reassessment of racial, gender and economic inequities; with the end of a war, and with so much more. Every day was an earthquake. But there were also little things like the death of a beloved local owl or how psychedelics are being looked at to treat PTSD. These are the facts, but they are just the start of my process. What happens next is intuitive and not very cerebral. Maybe this is the proper way to deal with our moment of “global weirding”. Maybe I’m running facts through artifice to create fictions, or maybe it’s the reverse. The one thing I know for sure is that the world may be going to hell, but art is still worth making.’
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