It’s July 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic. Psychotropics and politics meet when host Sophia Kayafas visits Fred Tomaselli to talk about art and his ever-changing Williamsburg neighborhood.
- My name is Sophia Kayafas, I'm a figurative painter
and I moved to New York six years ago
to pursue my career as an artist.
Now, I've been painting in my studio under lockdown
for the past three months and I'm starting to lose my mind.
I feel completely isolated and creatively depleted.
And I keep wondering, what other artists are still out here?
What are they making?
And if they're feeling the same way I do?
How are we going to survive 2020?
So I decided to hop on my bike
and take a trip to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Once known for its artists and hipsters,
DIY spaces and huge loft parties.
But riding around here now,
all you see is condos and yuppies.
I'm going to visit Fred Tomaselli,
he's an incredible painter and collage artist.
He grew up during the '70s and '80s
and he makes work about how we perceive reality.
He's been at the Brooklyn Museum,
he's even part of the Collection of the MoMA.
In fact, he's shown work all over the world.
Fred's been based in Brooklyn since 1985,
so he knows more than a little something
about what it means to make it in New York.
This is your garden?
- Yeah, yeah, I've lived here since 1997
and I've been in the neighborhood since 85.
- This is such a paradise that you've built, you know?
- Is not so bad, right?
- I know. - And what's really great,
is I really need it right now.
You know, there's an idea of ordered chaos,
that a garden is nature but it's also
kind of a culturally mediated form of nature.
It's constantly being mediated through
this sort of cultural lens and I sort of feel like
there's this, like the canvas can be a kind of a similar
or sort of wild and ordered area.
Plus I'm really into altered states and psychoactivity
and so many plants like this one here,
this is the San Pedro cactus, this is a Bolivian cactus.
It's illegal but it contains Mescalin basically,
so I like the fact that there are these magic plants here
that can't alter reality but just by looking at them,
they almost alter reality.
That guy over there, it's a datura
and this is a pan global hallucinogen
popular in the Wiccan community and some metal communities.
- [Sophia] It's so cool.
- [Fred] There's a Monarch migrating through.
- [Sophia] Do you feel like you're commenting on reality?
- I'm commenting and questioning.
I'm responding to evanescent impulses
and into intuition and mysterious sort of mechanisms
that I don't even understand sometimes.
So it's not always, it's not like...
Like, I may start with a conceptual idea about art making
in general but the actual practice of it
is way more intuitive.
I think the older I get the less sure I am about everything.
I think I was way more sure of myself when I was like
snot-nosed punk rock kid who thought
I had it all figured out.
- I feel like I've learned a lot
about what it means to be an artist in New York.
And that's so different than what I thought it was
'cause I thought it looked a certain way.
- I didn't really understand what New York was
when I moved here because I came here sight unseen.
One of the things I noticed was there were people
that were making art for the market.
That was really strange to me because in Los Angeles
where I'm from in the 80s, there was no market.
So when I came here, I didn't know why I was coming here
other than I thought New York might be
an interesting place to go,
since I had broken up with my girlfriend,
I'd lost my loft and I got fired from my job.
- It's all coming together. (chuckles)
- And when it all came together, I was like,
"Well, if I'm going to move, I'm going to move big."
And I just came here sight unseen, right?
- And so when I moved to Greenpoint that was like,
people were like, "Why did you, wait a minute,
you came 3000 miles to New York
and you missed Manhattan by two miles?
You're such a dumb ass.
Like, nobody's going to come out to Greenpoint
and see your work."
- What year did you get this studio?
- Got it in November of 1985.
- Oh, wow.
Is the area very different?
What was it like back then?
- Oh, it was primarily Latino.
Greenpoint is often referred to as a Polish neighborhood
but they really weren't in this area at that time.
- What did it used to look like?
Has a lot of things changed?
- It looks like this.
It's still like, kind of set in amber.
You would hear gunshots and it was no big deal.
- How many times have you been mugged?
- Three times.
- [Sophia] Did you think you going to die?
- I never thought it was going to die,
but New York was rough back in the 80s.
- I heard there was wild dogs running through this area.
- I got bit by a dog and the owner actually told me
that I could shoot his dog and pulled out a gun
and he was really mad at his dog.
He's like, 'cause I'm the third person
the dog had bit that month.
The dog's name was Zorro, I still remember it.
So I was like, "I don't want to shoot your dog, man.
I just need to go to the hospital."
- Oh my God.
- And then ambulance up and they said it would be 100 bucks.
And he said, "Well, I'll pay."
So I got a car service for five bucks, went to Woodhull
and kept the 95 bucks,
which I used to pay off my medical bills.
- And that was Halloween actually, in 1985.
- [Sophia] Wow.
- So then I went outside and everybody's egging each other
and there's fireworks and there's mayhem in the streets.
I mean, New York was wild.
I had to dodge eggs and my leg was all messed up.
And I ended up at a party in the East Village
at some friends of mine.
I told them my story, they were like,
"welcome to New York, man."
- Oh, that's so punk rock though.
- Yeah you're in New York now, you're getting bit by dogs.
You're dodging eggs, you're there.
And then two weeks later I signed the lease on this place.
- [Sophia] But you've seen gentrification, basically.
- I mean, all of us artists
we're the viruses of gentrification.
As much as we complain about it,
when we move into these areas we are looking for cheap space
and we like, I liked it, I liked this area the way it was,
but we set into motion or our friends
would come and visit us and go,
"Oh wow, that's what a great deal."
And they move in and next thing you know,
the place is getting gentrified and you're part of it,
whether you like it or not.
- You've been here long enough to see New York
especially probably Brooklyn re-invent itself many times.
- Yeah. (chuckles)
- [Sophia] Is that happening again right now?
- I think maybe, but I don't know for sure.
I think we're in the middle of something
that we don't really quite understand.
I mean, right now, it's tough to be in New York
because this is not a city that lends itself
to social distancing.
Of all the cities in America,
New York is the city that it's about social closeness.
It's what makes the city great, right?
- [Sophia] Yeah.
- This is why New York is a great place.
It's the very antithesis of what the virus is demanding,
is what the city is about.
But maybe with COVID, maybe there'll be, maybe rents
are going to come down a little bit.
Maybe it'll be a little bit more affordable, you know?
'Cause the city needs to refresh itself.
It needs to have...
It needs to be alluring to the young,
it needs to constantly reinvent itself.
But I mean, it can't just be a bunch of like baby boomers,
just sitting around like holding on, you know?
It needs to have other new younger voices
that make things interesting.
- I feel like with the pandemic,
it was almost like a dream come true.
All of a sudden I had zero responsibilities,
I had nowhere I needed to be, I had nothing but time.
- [Fred] Oh yeah?
- Yeah. - [Fred] Yeah I guess so.
- Because I had no job, so it was just quiet.
- I was working on big large scale resin works
in my studio, which I'm still working on
for a show that was supposed to open up in May.
And it was at James Cohen Gallery
and I was working like night and day, weekends,
like just trying to get this work done.
Obviously my show was postponed
and so I took a bunch of supplies
and I moved them to upstairs to a little bedroom,
little spare room that we have.
And I began re-investigating the New York Times,
it something I'd abandoned for a couple of years.
I started making these drawings that were about
these giant horrific headlines coming about like,
working out my anxieties, I guess, through these drawings.
The virus isn't just biological, it's social.
We have a really toxic government
that's taking a bad situation and making it much worse.
We have like all these issues that are coming to the fore
right now, over racial inequality, over social inequality,
over our lack of a health system that functions, you know,
and the pandemic is just laying bare all this crap
that we've been sort of like living kind of with
in a sort of like kind of coexisting with all this crap
and somehow or another, it's all coming to a head right now.
So I feel really unsettled, but part of me is hopeful.
Part of me feels like that maybe this is...
That maybe the pandemic will force people to understand
what's needed and what the next stages of society should be.
You know what I mean?
- [Sophia] Yeah.
- It's just like, I don't want it to go back to the way
it was before, maybe the pandemic,
maybe it's a chance for us to like address
some of these issues that have haunted this culture
of ours for so long.
- I keep hoping that if I like mature as an artist,
that I will find some kind of balance in my life
that I will actually be able to walk into my studio
and not feel overwhelmed and not feel like
the weight of the world is crushing me.
Did you ever feel that, do you feel that at all now?
- Yeah, I do.
But I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing.
- I mean, I'm mostly really puzzled by it and annoyed by it
and I feel like I'm not quite getting it right
and it's kind of elusive.
So I kind of just...
It's a itch that I keep scratching,
so it's a weird thing that rarely gets satisfied.
I satisfy it from time to time but mostly,
I mean it's perpetual state of dissatisfaction
of trying to achieve my...
Something that has to do with how it is to be me
in the world and how it is to be
and what this world is all about.
And I feel like it's constantly, it's eluding me,
but I keep going at it.
- It's been a year of constant devastating headlines.
Fred seems to have made order out of the chaos
or his own logical chaos out of the order
by taking those headlines and reinterpreting them.
He gets to retell our daily narrative
and create a conversation about our own perceptions.
But I also realized talking to Fred
how a community of artists is so important,
especially now at a time of social isolation.
I feel like I might've missed out on that community
of artists back in the day,
but maybe in a post-pandemic world
space will get cheaper again and we can have our studios
and a stronger, more vibrant artists community.
(pigeons cooing) (sirens wailing)
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