“New Paintings”, Anne Wilkes Tucker

Al Souza

New Paintings

September 13 – October 12, 2002
Pillsbury Peters Fine Art

By Anne Wilkes Tucker

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

For about a decade from the mid-seventies, Al Souza called his art “photoworks.” An image comes to mind of a yellow roadside warning sign with a pictograph of a photographer working, warning the viewer to beware. Souza himself is wary of photographs and, since the mid 1970s, he has rejected—in his own wry way—the notion that photographs offer a seamless representation of reality. In this earlier work, he mounted photographs in a grid in shallow wooden boxes, often with objects that had been photographed or objects related to what had been photographed. With impressive variation, he pursued the vagaries of human perception. He played with issues of scale, making objects of visibly different sizes appear to be identical in the photograph. He called into question degrees of reality, and asked visually whether levels of “truth” are lost with each generation of photographic reproduction, or with re-presentation of the same information in different media. Sometimes he changed the objects after they were photographed and before sealing them in the box, thus obfuscating what we are meant to recognize. Sometimes he withheld information or transformed it. For instance, in Churches (1981), there is a photograph of a boy in front of a church, then the outline of the boy in a black void, then the silhouette of the church, and finally a drawn version of the original photograph. “Do we really know what we think we know?” he nudges us to ask.

The photographs in the boxes were processed at the drugstore or some other drop-off-the-film establishment that gave them an ordinary and serviceable appearance. This is “NOT FINE ART” they appeared to announce, but that appearance belied the skill in assembling these wee dioramas. The photoworks were endlessly engaging if one took the time to discover the working assumptions being questioned. How do we see? What do we think we see? What are we overlooking or misjudging or misperceiving?

In articles and reviews about Souza’s work, critics often relate his work to that of Robert Rauschenberg and others with POP sensibility. There are also references to Abstract Expressionism, because his first paintings were hardedge abstractions and his formal sense of composition and color are highly evolved. Sometimes his skill to alter our perceptions of common objects and his evocative layering of images is associated with Surrealism (although I suspect he is not “serious” enough for Andre Breton’s liking). I find his insatiable curiosity and his delight in new visual discoveries to be closer to artists who taught and studied at the Bauhaus, the German school in the nineteen-teens and twenties that redefined Modern design, architecture, painting, sculpture, and photography. They wanted to peel away staid perceptions and to evolve a “New Vision.” They recognized that humor and play were valid tools when seeking to alter reality. They sought to cross-fertilize popular and fine art cultures. And like Souza, some of them were trained as engineers, which led to a love of precision.

Music is another useful analogy. Souza plays with our need to recognize what we see. I am always puzzled when an audience in a jazz club applauds for the riffs that they recognize. They come knowing that the heart of jazz is improvising, yet they cheer the chords that establish the tune and remain fixed. Al Souza is a musician. He understands riffs and lifting something new from the established. He handles images as though they were notes with which he can endlessly improvise.

After several years of employing media other than photographs or photographic reproductions, Souza has turned to jigsaw puzzles, and element occasionally employed in the early photoworks, as his primary tool of creation. A common subject matter connects the fragments: plants, buildings, or most humorously, painting supplies. As he did 20 years ago, Souza begins with ordinary materials and banal subjects portrayed in a clichéd manner—cute dogs, home-sweet-homes, whipped cream laden cakes, and he puts them together in his own sly, sophisticated way. The result is a cacophony of color—because most puzzles employ hyper colors—formed into a surprisingly pleasing whole. Part of the pleasure in each assemblage is seeing the whole, and reading it as a vibrant and coherently patterned composition, then zeroing in to identify the bits, and then finding that on backing up again, one perceives the whole slightly differently. One is now simultaneously conscious of the vivid composition first perceived and the jumble of individual images that dance across the surface. The work’s three-dimensional quality becomes more apparent as one perceives that some images twist from beneath another.

The whole is greater and more stimulation than the parts. But then, the maker of the whole is more ambitious than the makers of the parts. Puzzle makers aim to entertain, to distract, and even to tease, but not to re-educate. Souza creates cognitive problems; he subverts our expectations. He disorients and sabotages gleefully. Despite the dead pan titles, these pieces are not about the common subject matter that unites the fragments. Someone searching for meaning by itemizing the parts will be stymied. But then, why would anyone have previously looked for “meaning” in a puzzle? To find oneself even considering that an assemblage of puzzle parts could have meaning is part of the shock that stimulates us. As in all his prior work, Souza is investigation sight: what we see and how se see it, or how we might be prodded to re-see it in the most unexpected places.