Shout Magazine

Mark Kostabi on Tom Fruin

Technically, Tom Fruin is guilty of possession. Pot, heroin, cocaine – anything that comes in those miniature Ziploc baggies. He’s not the first. Originally, there was Arman, then Fred Tomaselli, then Damien Hirst. Fruin now joins the pantheon of serious contemporary artists who use actual drugs as an art supply. Though drug art expert Carlo McCormick tells me that Hirst doesn’t actually use real pills in his high-tech assemblages-he has them fabricated in metal and then painted to resemble pills.

Arman, Tomaselli and Fruin, however, risk having dogs sniff out their art pieces at airports while whipping them to out-of-town shows. Some of Tom Fruin’s heroin, pot and cocaine baggies, delicately stitched together to form ironic, translucent quilts, still contain residues of the illegal stuff.

So far he hasn’t been arrested, neither at an airport nor while he scours New York’s parks, housing projects and basketball courts for his art supplies. But he’s had many close calls. He’s managed to talk his way out of several arrests while cops explain that it’s still technically illegal to have the bags in his possession, even though the residues are infinitesimal.

Collectors love his stuff. Not because of its addictive qualities, but rather because they embody so many of the hallmarks of Modernism: controversy, repetition, grids, found objects, subversion, and the elegance of decay, whiled simultaneously being, simply, quilts-one of the ultimate all-American symbols of innocence and home.

Fruin’s quilts, or “flags” as he sometimes calls them, hang delicately exposed without frames, about six inches away from the wall, suspended from two thin metal rods with magnets holding them in place. Fruin weaves together the variously sized baggies with a typical sewing machine. Originally he used a vintage Dressmaker sewing machine, but recently he switched to a Kenmore, from Sears.

One thinks of Mondrian, whose Broadway Boogie Woogie also echoed the streets of New York seen from above. One thinks of Warhol, when examining the quilts at close range and discovering the repetition of pop icons on many of the baggies: lips, dollar signs, bats, etc. One thinks of stained glass windows and obsessive folk art.

At first he organized the found baggies according to the neighborhood in which they were found, thus making a sort of selected documentary portrait of the neighborhood. Now that word is out that he collects drug bags to make art, many of his friends and acquaintances have brought him their collections, so the new works are now more personal, quilt-portraits of individual users. But don’t think of sending him yours, not unless you want to risk some serious jail time.

April-May 2002