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Jailed and Drugged

Shows at Brasil and Ricesuggest that there are different ways to be naive

Tomaselli says that his paintings, some of which are influenced by hippie kitsch and car culture, let drugs work their magic on the eye rather than on the body. He calls his paintings "rectangles of utopia," claiming to have adopted the Romantic view that a painting is a window to another place rather than a mirror of self and society. But in the works now on view at the Rice University Art Gallery, Tomaselli's optimism is as garish and off-color as his hues. Though the exhibit is titled "The Urge to Be Transported," it's not simply an expression of that urge, which Tomaselli argues is fundamental to human experience, but a critical look at it. The fact that the works often go too far to disavow their own cynicism is their weakness.

The piece Behind Your Eyes is a schematic of the human nervous system, one filled with aspirin, antacid, acetaminophen, ephedrine and saccharine. This is one of the most literal, you-are-what-you-eat pieces in the show, and it's definitely not a transportive mirror. Twelve Chemical Celestial Portraits is a cluster of photograms for which Tomaselli asked 12 friends, each one born under a different sign of the zodiac, to list all the mood-altering chemicals, from chocolate to the more exotic, they've ever ingested. Then he took pills or bits of those substances and laid them out in the form of a star chart containing the appropriate birth constellation of the subject, made a photogram and labeled the white space left by each substance.

The result is both titillating and saddening -- a confessional catalog of escapism. By linking drugs to the stars, Tomaselli appears to be celebrating that which society considers illicit, saying that the urge to be transported is beautiful, natural. It's in our charts.

But there is a dissonance between this chart and the medical chart of Behind Your Eyes. It's as if Tomaselli is unwilling to lose his flower-child faith in the drug culture (wow, look at the stars) while portraying a '90s garden of designer hybrids (do I need a pink or a brown pill today, Doc?). When it comes to drug use, he makes no distinctions of degree or purpose -- the urge to be transported is always noble.

In other works, Tomaselli's non-didactic stance is more successful at addressing the role of drugs in our culture. In pieces such as the geometric Untitled (Rug), the floral pattern Super Plant and the optical play X Will Fade, manufactured and natural mind-alterers alike become part of the wallpaper, part of the social fabric of our lives. These works are not judgmental or resigned, they're playful, and in their use of everyday substances such as tobacco, they make do with what's at hand, so to speak. These pieces prove that Tomaselli need not moralize to get his point across.

In two landscape works, Tomaselli's unbelievable optimism rears up once again. Double Landscape shows a perfect, sun-dappled, movie-ending scene framed by a morass of psychedelic tendrils dotted with saccharine, while 49 Palms Oasis depicts a California beach at night; a digital pattern of color and pills is overlaid on the scene like a light imprint on the back of your eyelids.

Though both scenes seem impossible to accept as anything but kitsch, nowhere is any intended irony present. It's as if Tomaselli is trying to tell us he loves saccharine and Disneyland. But these paintings are scary. Far from being windows on utopia, they are mirrors that reflect the pap that TV dreams are made of. Instead of leading away from the humdrum, the tendrils of purple and orange in Double Landscape point straight to it.

"Jailhouse Drawings" will be on display through October 31 at Brasil,2606 Dunlavy,528-1993.

"The Urge to Be Transported"will be ondisplay through November 3 at the Rice University Art Gallery,6100 Main Street, 527-6069.

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