Al Souza

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Al Souza’s new paintings are apparently disjunctive. At first glance they look like overlays of unrelated images, and seem to depend on modish deconstructionist strategies. What they really require is that we retune our focus: it’s the whole rather than the parts that matters most here. These highly graphic renderings of disparate images have been executed in near-identical dimensions and superimposed upon one another. Looking at Souza’s paintings is like reading an onionskin edition of collated manuals, encyclopedias, comic books, or popular woodcuts. The visual intricacy of the conflations and the incipient dramas they suggest prompt you to want to beat the game, to psych out the scenario. Scanning these sweetly colored surfaces at a sometimes vertiginous speed is almost like playing Jeopardy: the facts are all here, but what is the question?

The discursive mode Souza favors, in which motifs are derived from secondhand sources and then deployed to exaggerate their mutual neutrality, is thoroughly familiar from the work of Sigmar Polke and David Salle. But Polke and Salle’s nonhierarchical arrangements suggest a paradigm for a valueless social order, whereas Souza insists on an acutely focused simultaneity of perception, leading purposefully, if obliquely, toward some moral insight. All his subjects are mutually informative; no matter how arbitrary they seem, their connectedness is subtly acknowledged. The frequent centrality or symmetry of organization, repetitions of major directional forms, and accumulations of signs and data hint at both syntax and stance.

In Ideological Swindle, 1987, a manic Jimmy Cricket fiddles on a cushy atomic cloud, flanked by a pipe-smoking painter and hat-holding bum and linked by the long horizontal of a U.S. bomber plane. The formal symmetry of the work reduces nuclear destruction to a decorative conceit. Wang, 1988, combines the woodcutlike image of a Dürer crucifixion with that of a radiant Chinese mask. But triads of circles interrupt the scene: three is Souza’s “unlucky number,” the throw of the dice into the arena of resurrection. In Mainstream, 1988, little boys swimming at summer camp are encoiled in the swirls of a weather map, and arrested under a diagram instructing Japanese in the proper use of Western toilets. The rationalized order of the composition is a foil to the irrefutable evidence of contamination. Souza is playing Jonathan Swift with the Boy Scouts Handbook.

Joan Seeman Robinson