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It's hard to believe that your last solo show in New York was in 2006. What have you been doing since then?
Mostly museum shows and biennials. I had a solo show at White Cube in London in 2009. It takes me a long time to make my work. I only have one part-time assistant, because I insist on doing everything myself. This latest show took me three years to complete. I’m a real slow poke!
Your pieces based on The New York Times generally involve collaging or painting over the main photo on the front page in ways that may or may not relate to the headline. When did you start making them, and why?
They started in 2005 with a Times story about the disgraced WorldCom exec of Bernie Ebbers. He had just been convicted of fraud, and the front-page photo showed him in a perp walk with his wife next to him, surrounded by paparazzi. It reminded me of Masaccio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a work that’s inspired previous work of mine. I carried the paper around with me all day and kept looking at it and eventually started drawing on it.
Do you paint directly on the newspaper?
I scan the newspaper first, and print a digital image of it on watercolor paper. Then I work on that. I have a lot of false starts so most of the pieces take four or five versions until I figure out what I want to do.
Why do you always go for the images above the fold?
They’re the main event. As a collagist, I’m basically a collectivist working with the images of others. Similarly, the Times is a hive of writers, editors and photographers who highlight what they want us to know, or think we should know. I see my role as being another editor, putting my subjective spin on top of their allegedly objective reality.
What are some of things you look for in creating these works?
I’m attracted to specific images and the context of those images, such as the stories surrounding them, which sometimes affects what I end up doing. Increasingly, I’ve been approaching the work from an intuitive point of view. It’s more about play than anything else—finding my way through experimentation, having an adventure on my way to outcome. Even getting lost or frustrated factors into the process.
Is it the news value of the images or the way they look that determines how you alter them?
It’s a little bit of both, but leaning more towards the visual. It’s really the image itself that sparks my formal interventions, but content can also be a factor. There’s always been a sociological or political component to my work, but it’s sometimes been obfuscated by the decorative nature of what I do.
The Times pieces that I've seen lean toward the psychedelic or surreal. What are you aiming to express?
It varies from piece to piece. I don’t know if I have an overarching message, other than maybe that the world is going to Hell, yet we’re still making art.
Do you worry that people might think of these pieces as doodles?
I don’t know; maybe they are super-doodles. I can spend weeks on one drawing, but I suppose you could do that with a doodle, too. Anyway, they’re starting to inform my larger paintings and my larger paintings are informing them, so they’re having a conversation.
Speaking of your paintings, you have nine in this show. What’s new about them?
Around the time my traveling retrospective got to the Brooklyn Museum in 2010, and I started working on the Times pieces in earnest, I also started leaving actual paint on the surface of my paintings, instead of encapsulating it under resin. Even though I think of those pieces as reliquaries, with all these supercharged magical materials embedded within, I felt that they lacked the reliquary of my own DNA, so to speak, in my touch. This is the first show where that’s coming into focus.
Are you still embedding pills and marijuana into the work?
I stopped using pills in 2005. I still use leaves, though not necessarily from pot plants. I use fig, grape and rose leaves, and the fact that you can’t tell the difference means, perhaps, that everything has become psychoactive in a way. Like, when I took the pills out, I replaced them in dots, with the idea that the dots functioned as placebos. Either that, or maybe they’re just dots.
Fred Tomaselli, “Current Events,” opens at James Cohan Gallery May 1.