Tire Iron #5 2/29/01
Al Souza has been making mosaics from jigsaw puzzles for a while now, but these are his best yet. The thicker buildup of puzzle pieces (five and six layers deep) give these new works at Moody Gallery a satisfying heft, helped along by deep boxlike aluminum frames which confine their riotously reticulated surfaces. Souza has also replaced the old thrift-shop puzzles he used to gather with brighter, less nostalgic new puzzles pieced together by an informal squad of puzzle assemblers.
The two best works in the show are the two largest: 'Nuf Said and Field and Stream. 'Nuf Said is clotted with an overwhelming load of spools, jewelry, Easter eggs, Lifesavers, baseballs, seed packets and other glitzy junk collaged together from wickedly difficult puzzles which are close-up photographs of similar objects. Souza and the puzzle designers share a common interest in minutely textured surfaces, Souza's mosaic harmonizing with the intricate photographs to multiply their dizzying claustrophobia. In Field and Stream the irregular edges of Souza's puzzle sections blend seamlessly into the irregular details of flowery fields, rock formations and waterfalls. As in 'Nuf Said, there is a mutually reinforcing correspondence between the textures in the photo images and the puzzle texture itself, which gives these pieces a necessity lacking in works like Surprise Inside and Town and Country.
Souza's puzzle works are meant to be looked at up close; from even a short distance they melt together into muddy pointillism. Novel technique aside, Souza's puzzle pieces are essentially collages of printed photographs, and are limited to the color range and intensity of process printing. They can't compete with paintings as color fields. This muddiness is used to good effect in Yum Yum, in which a gluttonous surfeit of cold cuts and ice creams jostles and sloshes atop itself in a reddish-brown glow like a restaurant heat-lamp. From a few feet away, the image becomes a pool of gravy-colored sludge, precisely evoking the queasy lethargy of overindulgence. Where's Waldo, made from many similar puzzles, has the show's most consistent color scheme. The original difficulty of locating the little nerd among thousand of decoys is absurdly magnified.
Souza's technique juxtaposes areas of smooth, assembled puzzle images with raggedly unfinished edges; in his best pieces these ragged edges are used purposefully to enhance the works' frenetic action. Surprise Inside and Town and Country have edge problems; focusing too heavily on finished pictures, making the unavoidable rough edges an unwanted distraction. In Surprise Inside, large Muppet faces stick out from a sea of random in-fill. Likewise in Town and Country, disconnected vignettes of skyscrapers and farmhouses are bordered by puzzle fuzz.
Second Vanishing Point is the weakest work in the show. Souza uses the edges of puzzles to make a radiating mandala that, since it has nothing to do with the puzzle imagery, becomes a trivial exploration of technique for its own sake.
Pop Art: US-UK Connections
Pop Art: US-UK Connections at The Menil Collection is destined to disappoint people looking for a hit parade of the usual American pop-art stars. Admittedly, the show has its ups and downs; but its unevenness is its virtue: the show provides an opportunity to see some lesser-known gems, and by showing us some artists who failed we can better appreciate the achievement of those who succeeded. The show is thoughtful rather than impressive; what it does superbly is reconstruct a particular art historical moment, contrasting the different ways that the shift away from pure abstraction in the early 60's took hold in the closely linked yet quite distinct artistic soils of Los Angeles, New York, and London.
The refreshing amateurishness of much of the work is a forceful reminder that pop began as a disreputable alternative to high art. Tom Wesselman's Still Life #16 slaps together photo cut outs, fabric and fields of clumsily applied flat paint with an endearing awkwardness which would get it dismissed as student work today. Billy Al Bengston's Gas Tank and Tachometer II is abject; its thinly painted surface in an almost empty canvas is the work of an artist pathetically struggling to invent a fresh approach to representation. Andy Warhol's Triple Elvis, although it has been robbed of some of its shock value by Warhol's subsequent acceptance, is a prime example of poor craftsmanship used as a slap in the face to the hyper-refined formalism of abstract art. If this were a misprinted T-shirt, it would have been thrown away.
Mixed in with the familiar American style comic-and-product genre of pop, the show presents a fair cross section of a distinctively British variant. In the painterly, psychological works of Derek Boshier, R. B. Kitaj, David Hockney and Allen Jones, pop is primarily a return to figuration, a new surrealism freed from the high seriousness of continental manifestoes, leaving room for the British penchant for humor. Like the prewar surrealists, these artists approach the canvas as an empty basket for the painter to fill with stuff from his head. Kitaj's Walter Lippman is barely pop using faces and figures vaguely taken from film noir to set up complex, ambiguous psychological narratives amid a jungle of colored stripes and planes.
The dullest bits of the show are numerous British knock-offs of American pop art. Most of the less successful British pieces ape the low art/ high art punning of American artists, even using media images drawn from American culture, a vernacular which they speak as a second language, poorly.
Richard Hamilton, difficult to classify as always, is the arch satirist of the show. Unconcerned with painting, he mixes media with abandon, poking fun at consumer culture and its transparently false ideals with a witty combination of constructivist geometry and Benny Hill. His Towards a Definitive Statement on the Coming Trends in Men's Wear and Accessories is a topsy-turvy mélange of astronaut head, jukebox, and striped boxer shorts that derides the ridiculous fascination with the "latest thing."
- Bill Davenport
Images appear courtesy the artists and galleries.