It's nothing new to refer to young artists as being part of a "DJ generation," even if they don't know crossfading from crosshatching. That artists are creating pastiches from asynchronous bits of popular culture is often remarked on by professors and curators who keep in regular contact with the younger set. Al Souza would represent an example of that set—if he weren't already eligible for AARP membership.
The veteran Texas artist makes his solo Portland debut this month at Elizabeth Leach with an exhibition of collages and signature jigsaw puzzle pieces, which manage the rare distinction of being intellectually provocative and endlessly fun at the same time. Souza scours garage sales and thrift shops for completed puzzles, which are usually only partially disassembled before they're discarded. Working with these fragments of semi-worked puzzles, Souza layers and collages enormous "canvases" to create dizzying, ridiculous, and wonderful compositions of pop banality.
"Italian Dressing," one of Souza's six-foot jigsaw mosaics, shuffles together puzzle scenes of hot fudge sundaes, galloping horses, penguins, and Jacques-Louis David's famous painting of Napoleon. As far as artists using the DJ's repertoire of appropriation and pastiche, this is essential viewing. Souza acts as an electromagnet of junk culture and artless imagery, then chops, twists, and recombines them into frenetic, all-over compositions that nod to both Jackson Pollock's engrossing fields of chaos, and Girl Talk's Ritalin-deprived orchestrations of thousands of pop music snippets.
Jigsaw puzzles typically conjure images of lonely old people, killing time by hyperfocusing on images of the utmost banality—tinkering away in solitude before scrapping the whole enterprise and moving onto the next. It is impossible, in front of Souza's work, not to contemplate the tenuous distinction between this image and that of the artist in his studio. Similarly, Souza's gloriously tacky collages raise questions of popular taste and cultural elitism, representation and abstraction, and how we "read" images.
Souza's signature puzzle pieces and paper collages succeed as both crowd-pleasing pop riots and witty deconstructions of visual literacy, but they also remind us that the DJ generation is hardly unique in its ability to mix it up.