Photos by Justina Villanueva

Artist Fred Tomaselli built his reputation on psychedelic works made from pills and weed trapped, like prehistoric insects in amber, in deep slabs of clear resin. Drawing from sources as varied as Islamic art, the Light and Space movement of the 1960s, the Audubon Field Guide and star charts, Tomaselli has created a vivid, multifaceted body of work that reveals his fascination with the human pyche as manifested in the vague and awesome metaphysical plane, and in the cracklingly real world.

HIGH TIMES had the pleasure of interviewing Tomaselli in his Bushwick, Brooklyn, studio on a cold winter day. He had just returned from Fort Worth, Texas, where he was overseeing the hang of his solo show there. He had another show immediately upcoming at the Adelaide International, in Australia, so there were only a few works, some psychedelic cacti, and sheets and sheets of gigantic pressed pot leaves left in the place. In this barren setting, interrupted only by the brutal shriek of Hatebeak, a death metal band fronted by a parrot, emanating from the stereo, Tomaselli held forth about punk, wild pigs and his work’s mind-altering mission.

You’re from California, right? What was it like there in the late ’70s/early ’80s, when you were coming up?
 I did a lot of Orange Sunshine in the early ’70s. I tripped a lot in high school and got a lot out of it. Then I started hitchhiking around the country, spent a few years on the road. I basically stopped doing psychedelics until I came back to California and watched punk rock open up, saw all these Germs shows.

I was having a really good time, and then hardcore turned, around 1980. All of a sudden it seemed that all the jocks I had escaped from were becoming part of the scene. It really came to a head one night at a Public Image concert, 1980 – the Plugz, Kipper Kids… It was a really fun show, but my friend got his nose broken, got the shit kicked out of him. About a third of the audience was these skinheads, and it was just mayhem. I was really fucking depressed about it, you know?

I got my hands on some acid right after that and was like, “Fuck it,” and dropped acid. It felt really good, so I spent the rest of 1980 tripping my brains out.

Were you making art at that time?
Yeah, but it wasn’t very good. I would make art in binges. I’d go out to clubs and see shows and hang out with my friends and do stuff and then I would say, “Oh fuck, I have to work on my art!” So I’d binge on art and then I’d binge on drugs. I was sort of vacillating back and forth. I wasn’t really committed to either one of those endeavors.

I spent that summer basically tripping, and then the Paisley Underground scene opened up after that, with Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade. That really seemed to encompass everything I kind of liked, my pre-punk sort of more hippie Byrds and Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan type of idea – I was rooted in that [before hardcore].

Somehow or another in 1985 I ended up in New York. I tripped every ten years or so, whether I needed to or not. To just kind of remind myself. I mean, after awhile, it just kind of seemed that tripping was the same movie over and over again – I wasn’t getting anything out of it. But if you don’t do it for a long time and you refresh yourself, you can get a lot out of it.

Do you have any spectacular acid stories?
In 1980, that summer me and a girlfriend went to Catalina Island and camped out. We took a bunch of  blotter acid and ended up encountering a herd of pygmy buffalo. That was completely unbelievable to us. They were leftovers from when they had filmed a movie – they used them to make a John Wayne movie – and the buffalo had gone feral.

Then, that night, as we were really super high, our campsite was invaded by wild pigs, hundreds and hundreds of wild pigs. They were fighting each other, knocking over trash cans, and just creating the most insane ruckus. We laughed so hard that my ribs hurt. I was physically destroyed. So that was really good. Wild pigs on acid. I could tell you other stories, but everyone has acid stories.

In case of emergency, ingest psychedelic cacti.

Your work is evocative of altered consciousness. Is that something you’re seeking to enter, or provide, or both?
When you start thinking about pre-modernist art ideals, art historians talk about paintings as windows to other realities, and this idea of losing yourself in this other sublime, other world, this transcendent space. They talk about paintings as being kind of vehicles to take you into other dimensions.

It seemed to me like [that] reminded me of a lot of the rhetoric around psychedelic drugs. So I started making art with inlaid pills. I wanted to rearrange the value of the pills: instead of going through your bloodstream to alter consciousness they travel [through] your eyeballs, right? So it’s a different route to the brain.

At that time, I was trying to illustrate conceptual ideas I had about art, so [the art] was mostly geometric, minimalist – it didn’t really have the look and feel of tripstery, visionary art. [I was] working with a lot of Op sensibilities and geometric sensibilities. I had done a lot of installation art prior to that, that was more about theme parks, and they were more these sort of Light and Space environments, and they were more immersive realities.

I had abandoned painting, but I had all these skills as a painter; slowly, all these atrophied skills started going back into the work, in a really tentative way. Eventually it got a lot more lush, and then, at a certain point, [the works] started [becoming] sort of psychedelic, or [evocative of] altered consciousness.

In a way, the more trippy they got, the less actual real drugs were in them. I kind of figured that maybe the work itself had taken its own drugs and was tripping its own brains out.

Around 2005, I took all the pills out of the work. I still have the [pot] leaves, because I really like the shape of nature. I started growing and putting pot into my work, because I wanted some signifiers for the drug subculture other than geometric drugs that came out of the corporate-industrial complex. I thought it was all about the same thing, about altering your consciousness, or feeling better, or the lack of pain.

I started growing pot because I thought the soft shape of nature against the hard geometries was really beautiful. Then that slowly took over; the shape of nature got bigger and bigger, and then it started turning into all kinds of foliage and fish, and people and whatnot and it just got trippier, and I guess that’s where I’m at now.

When did you begin growing pot?

I grew pot all through college, in Southern California.

Closet style or outdoor grow?

Outdoor grow! I had a backyard. Growing pot is sort of like … you know how there’s a gateway nature in my work? [Growing pot] was like a gateway to gardening for me. I ended up having to grow tomatoes to hide the pot plants, and then I was growing eggplants and stuff, and I got really into that too. I was into all of it.

I grew in downtown LA when I lived there. I had a little courtyard there. Here [in New York], I’ve grown in various ways. I’ve done indoor grows and outdoor grows, but mostly at a friend of mine’s house over in Long Island.

So obviously you know how to grow now!
Yeah! Pot has some particularities but it’s not hard to grow. It’s not hard to grow good pot, either! I like it. I like growing stuff. I have a big fig tree in my backyard and grapes and all that stuff.

Wow, fig trees aren’t indigenous to the area…
No! Many things aren’t. But the guy I got the place from, he was like 100 years old – he brought the cutting, so it’s my duty to keep the fig tree alive. So far I’ve kept it alive!

Fred Tomaselli’s solo show Current Events will be on view at the James Cohan Gallery, NYC, May 1–June 14, 2014. Additionally, Tomaselli will be discussing his new book, The Times, with author Lawrence Weschler at the New York Public Library in NYC on Wednesday, May 28, at 6 p.m. Admission is free!

Super Plant
1994
Psychoactive plant material, acrylic and resin on wood panel
74 x 54 inches
© The Artist / Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

Expulsion
2000
Leaves, pills, mushrooms, photocollage, acrylic, and resin on wood panel
84 x 120 inches
© The Artist / Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

Penetrators (Large)
2012
Photocollage, acrylic, resin on wood panel
72 x 72 inches
© The Artist / Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

Breathing Head
2002
Leaves, printed paper collage, acrylic, gouache, and resin on panel
60 x 60 inches
© The Artist / Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

Wow and Flutter
1992
Hemp leaves, acrylic, and resin on wood panel
36 x 48 inches
© The Artist / Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai