Al Souza: "Fundamentals" at Moody Gallery

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Cultural Detritus 2
2011
Al Souza
Fabric, paper, glue
16 1/4″ x 13 1/4″
Photo: courtesy Moody Gallery

Al Souza, a virtuoso of collage and assemblage who has claimed all sorts of printed matter–from maps to movie posters to jigsaw puzzles–as fodder for his obsessive, layered deconstructions, took his X-acto knife to antiquarian books for his 18th solo exhibition at Moody Gallery. An influential professor at the University of Houston, Souza typically leaves enough of his source material’s original imagery visible–albeit fragmented–for viewers to glean hints of its subject matter. In these newest works, Souza calls our attention not just to the contents of the books he collects in the vintage bookstores of Western Massachusetts, where he spends his summers, but to their physical makeup. As several ongoing series reveal, every part of a book is fair game, from the spines after Souza has removed the binding materials, to the pages’ marbled or gilded “front” edges. Souza cuts 3/4 inch sections by hand from the edges, then arranges stacks of the sections into boxes made from aged wood, much of which was left over from a studio he built 40 years ago. While the use of weathered materials to frame these compact assemblages highlights their handmade quality, Souza’s recombined edges give the works an unexpected opulence, whether due to the rich patterns and abstract compositions he teases out of the marbled edges–which often suggest geological layers–or the lavishness of the gilded, gold-leaf edges. Ever resourceful, Souza takes the leftovers from his Bookworks–such as leather scraps, pieces of string and bits of paper–and employs them in his Cultural Detritus series. Recalling Bruce Nauman’s late 1960s photos of messes on his studio floor, these assemblages derive their compositions from chance, according to critic Raphael Rubinstein, who in his catalogue essay also cites Fluxus artists Daniel Spoerri and Dieter Roth as early influences on the 68-year-old Souza.

The Cultural Detritus assemblages serve as a bridge between the meditative Bookworks and the relative chaos of a new series Souza began in response to images of the devastating tsunami that struck Japan in April 2011. Combining broken toys, computer parts and other random castoff fragments along with stones, pieces of wood, and dollops of paint, the resulting series, Gaman–a Japanese word meaning “reverence for perseverance”–capture the strange, awful beauty Souza saw in the images of destruction. A counterpoint to the inward-looking Bookworks, the Gaman pieces served as a reminder that for all his fascination with books, Souza’s no hostage to the ivory tower.