New York

Al Souza

O.K. Harris Works of Art

Al Souza comes across as a comparative anatomist of the differences between the photographed motif and the actual motif. That is to say, he investigates the unexpectedly shocking contradictions of reality that photographic form exhibits. And he does this by recourse to the simpleminded scheme of building compartmented boxes juxtaposing, for instance, color photographs of miniature roses with the roses themselves. One may, if one wishes, test the accuracy of the color printing process at firsthand. But this perfectly legitimate activity is deceiving: time has changed the color, and enfeebled the pigment of the subject. We have a double-take because the real rose is dried up, a withered, dead thing that would crumble at the touch, while its photograph renders a vibrant, dew-flecked, soft-petaled plant that looks just recently pulled from the earth. In other words, Souza isolates for us, within the lucid confines of the still-life genre, and without any supporting background material, the intractable “pastness” of the photographic content. And then he shows what has happened to it since its exposure to film, its decay, its indrawn depreciation, contrasted though, as a physical fact, with the freshness of its image.

But it would not do to think him a sentimentalist. His mood is far too clinical and his method too systematic. Take his series on fruit—color photographs of an apple, pear, orange, lime, and grapefruit, each framed with its seed lying on the bottom shelf of its compartment. While we are asked to examine the pretty classifications and colors, we are also bid to review our notions of organic generation and growth, and to think even about the chromosome constituency that produces such differently shaped wrinkled pips. The fructifying element is given to us in the flesh, although the fruit itself is only photographed. The idea of a photograph as an alter-ego of a thing, with subsequent confusions thereof, gets a gentle push even as Souza’s point is to present only a cause-and-effect relation.

Consider his four-part essay, Tomato. Reading from left to right, top level, is a black-and-white photograph of the motif, then another black-and-white photograph of a tomato resting on the original photo. Beneath, a luscious red tomato this time, sits on the edge of a photograph of one in black-and-white. Last, the full color fruit is shown rubbing its succulent skin against the previous shot, redone in black-and-white. The charming surprise of this sequence is that while it looks as if it follows in logical progression, photos within photos, with potential for infinite regressing, the interchange between hue and nonhue jumps back and forth. If his other exhibits are any indication, Souza wants to reveal to us the inevitably vicarious state in which the objective lens casts the natural world. We’re not quite sure whether color is being annexed into a medium where it does not exist, or whether it triumphs over all prior restrictions of the photographic mode. There is evidence, of course, for both judgments, and the delicate tensions that result from that auger for a very intelligent enlargement of a program that scrutinizes the knowledge that photos give us.

Max Kozloff