Alyson Souza paints beautifully, piling rich impastos over confident lines to create luscious surfaces that invite careful viewing…There is a sense of discovery and delight in quietly exploring these artworks.
Artillery Magazine – Show Review
By Betty Ann Brown
California artist Alyson Souza creates paintings and sculptures that draw parallels between man-made relics—vintage electrical equipment, say, or battered geographer’s tools—and nature forms of similar shape, texture, or function. An immense head of cabbage opens to reveal a topographical map in its circular core, the raised veins of the leaves echoing the drawn lines of the drafted elevations (Neutral Ground, all works 2014). Small bones echo electrical conduits, forcing the comparison between the bodily processes and energy flow (Nonconductive). A steel disc from an old car, like a tufted avian neck, is ringed by a collar of feathers (Break Down). A miniature portrayal of an Italianate landscape rests in a dark circle at the back of a skull (Site Specific), rather like memories occupying the mind.
In the center of Souza’s exhibition is a large structure, a simple wooden house (The Speed of Dark). The red electrical lines running to the roof suggest veins or arteries. The door of the house is painted and sculpted like a ribcage, hinting at a link between a domestic interior and the chest cavity. The intercostal spaces open to reveal verdant trees (bones?) and a cloudy sky (breath? sighs?). They invade the defined domestic space to expose the usual inside/outside boundaries as both relative and permeable.
Souza’s house recalls the “Cells” series of Louise Bourgeois: sculptural enclosures that similarly combine salvaged architectural materials, found objects and fabricated elements. But whereas Bourgeois insisted that her surreal rooms were autobiographical (to be read as Freudian analyses of the father-daughter relationship), Souza’s house deconstructs a trope that reaches farther back in history.
Souza’s work countermands the binary metaphysics of Western culture dating back to Aristotle that position man as separate from nature. The Ancient Greeks built heavy fortified walls to establish physical barriers between the city and the outlying wilderness. But Souza’s walls (i.e., her boundaries/frames/painted contours) intermingle realms. This aspect of her work recalls the ideas of French sociologist Bruno Latour, who argued for the non-polarized view of nature as culture. Latour reminds us that scientific “facts” about the natural world are social constructs.
Latour further insists that the question is not “Is it real or is it constructed?” but “Is it constructed well enough to become an autonomous fact?” In reference to art, one might reconfigure Latour’s second question as, “Is it constructed well enough to carry the meaning?” As it happens, Alyson Souza paints beautifully, piling rich impastos over confident lines to create luscious surfaces that invite careful viewing. The adamant physicality of her painted surfaces insists on contemplation. Viewers cannot slide by them, as if slipping across plastic, with rushed, only partial consideration. There is a sense of discovery and delight in quietly exploring these artworks. They’re attractive, interesting, and expertly crafted. In a society addicted to the fast—and therefore shallow—appraisal (the “hit”), objects redolent of hand-made intimacy stop us, slow our pace, and draw us (as seers) closer (to the seen).
“Alyson Souza’s art is Surrealist in the very best sense of the word.”
Not This, Not That
By Betty Ann Brown
Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. — Andre Breton
Alyson Souza’s art is Surrealist in the very best sense of the word. Which is to say she creates work that conflates the two sides of binary oppositions–binaries like light-dark, culture-nature, within-without–to create images that transcend common perceptions. Her recent body of work, currently exhibited at Coagula Curatorial, is titled “The Speed of Dark”: a smart play on the familiar phrase, “the speed of light.” (Does darkness speed? Or merely hover, eternally, just outside our field of vision?) The light referred to is natural light–the sun, the plants grown in its warm rays, and our earthly elegance reflecting its glow–as well as man’s manipulation of light through electricity. What we see are plant forms juxtaposed with old machine parts, bleached human bones laid alongside vintage insulation components, terrain patterns contrasted with mapping contours. Thickly impastoed leaves spin around a rusted wheel. Feathers wreath an old sprocket. Fern fronds ruffle behind a numbered dial. And a miniature cityscape–seen as if through the wrong end of a magnifying glass–floats like a circular jewel at the back of a human skull.
In the center of the gallery is a sculptural structure that oscillates between a log cabin and a skeletal torso. Ribbed doors open to layers of forest, as if the chest cavity were invaded by nature. (Well, isn’t it?) On one steeply pitched pediment is a densely packed circle of twine. On the other, the same twine opens out as if exploded. Or like the desperate reach of stunted roots. Or perhaps the errant tresses of a frizzy pony tail.
Think of the way Salvador Dali and Louis Bunuel worked on Un Chien Andalou: They replaced the arms of a cross with a wooden tennis racket on an apartment wall, the seeping blood of a stigmata with a spill of ants on an open palm. As Freud noted, visually similar images can symbolically represent each other. A man’s tie can refer to the phallus, a box to female genitalia. (Indeed, Dali and Bunuel ritualized sexual intercourse as the repeated folding of a striped tie into a hinged box.)
Souza mines this interpretation, allowing shapes to assume multiple allusions, sliding from body parts to mechanical devices, metacarpals to insulators, braided hair to rope to insulated wire. And in this sliding–this graceful sliding–the old separation of God-made and man-made seems not just artificial but meaningless.
We can trace back to the Greeks the idea that human culture is separate from and in fact opposed to nature. (Whereas the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia combined human and animal in their depictions of the divine, the Greeks considered human-animal fusions like the Minotaur and Centaur to be monstrous and evil.) So we consider a human-designed building culture, while a bird nest is nature. This separation is so deeply ingrained that it’s a bit shocking to hear that when asked how his art related to nature, Jackson Pollock responded with “I am nature.” (This was reported by Lee Krasner, in discussing Polllock’s first conversation with Hans Hofmann.)
Alyson Souza is nature, too. Or rather, her work is nature. Nature shot through with culture. Or is it culture interwoven with nature? Thickly encrusted paint, roughly grained wood, rusted metal, wire, leaves, bones. All of it marvelously beautiful.
You know: art.
Beautiful six page spread in the fantastic French magazine Hey! .
Check out the interview with Alyson here!
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Interview with Alyson:
I love to build as much as I love to paint. To imagine a thing that has never existed before, to bring that idea from a sketch to a real three-dimensional object is incredibly satisfying. The process often involves some aspect of problem solving, as I need to balance the visual effect with making something that will not fall apart or be terribly delicate. I have made a number of pieces that have a functional aspect: buttons, switches or levers and wheels that allow the piece to move or shift in some way. When designing such a piece, I find it helpful to look at existing objects which function in a similar manor to what I have in mind in order to come to a solution. I was working on a piece where I wanted a needle to move back and forth. After problems with a few homemade electromagnets, I went in search of something pre-existing. I found exactly the part I needed in my neighborhood Chinese restaurant, one of those plastic, waving kitties they have for good luck. I was able to remove that part, by dissecting the poor kitty, and solve my problem. I think the three dimensional aspect brings a playfulness to my work, even if the subject matter is more serious. It makes the work feel very approachable and with the moving pieces, they become interactive.
Oil and Wood: my stylistic choice is very conscious. My conceptual themes are not time or place specific, so I like to mix an old style or image with something very modern. I was facing a particular problem in creating the “head pieces”. I had previously been using friends as my models. These paintings read for many as portraits of and about the specific person I had painted. I had intended however, that the individual I painted be symbolic of a larger group of people or even mankind in general. This is why I used clippings from advertisements from the 40’s, heads painted by famous Renaissance painters and illustrations from old medical texts as my models. In this way, the person depicted is no longer “Marc” but simply; “man”. The “head pieces” are about conversations we have with ourselves inside our own minds. They are first conversations I have had in my mind but also thoughts that I suspect I am not alone in. The later pieces use a lot of animals for two reasons, first I love painting repetitive patterns like scales and feathers and also, I had switched my focus a bit. I wanted to talk about larger human issues and in some cases, politics. Though I was thinking of a particular politician or well-known person when I set out to make a piece I wanted it to represent all people who were like-minded, regardless of place or time.
My personal ideal of fine art? In terms of what I gravitate towards, is work that succeeds on a few levels conceptually, visually, materially and individually. I say conceptually because for me there has to be an intent behind a piece. It doesn’t have to be deep or original but it has to be present. This is a personal thing, but I like things that are beautiful. Understanding that, of course, my idea of beauty may encompass things that many may not see as beautiful at all. In terms of material, I love raw materials, wood and paint and metal are beautiful in and of themselves. I really appreciate a well-made piece. Lastly things that are totally original or very unusual are always float my boat.Finding my particular place in the contemporary art scene has always been difficult for me. The real answer is I don’t know where I fit in. This bothered me for a long time. I actually think of myself as a conceptual artist but visually that label seems to make the least sense at all. The style of the painted aspect of my work is very traditional, very realistic and somewhat impressionistic in terms of brush strokes and impasto but the images depicted are not tradional. I appreciate the lowbrow scene for its emphasis on figurative work and craftsmanship but don’t think my work fits in there. I once asked an art critic I respect what he would call me and he used the term ” New American Surrealist”. I was happy to have a label accurate or not. Since then I have found a number of artists I would be hard pressed to place within the contemporary art scene and I am happy to fit in with those who don’t fit in.
“Claiming its place on the vanguard of the Pop surrealist and “lowbrow” art movements, Billy Shire’s La Luz de Jesus Gallery, established in 1986 and originally on Melrose Avenue, launched a behemoth show, “La Luz de Jesus 25,” featuring artists who have exhibited there since the gallery’s inception, among them: Gary Baseman, Joe Coleman, Matt Groening, Frank Kozik, Elizabeth McGrath, Mark Mothersbaugh, Gary Panter…
Claiming its place on the vanguard of the Pop surrealist and “lowbrow” art movements, Billy Shire’s La Luz de Jesus Gallery, established in 1986 and originally on Melrose Avenue, launched a behemoth show, “La Luz de Jesus 25,” featuring artists who have exhibited there since the gallery’s inception, among them: Gary Baseman, Joe Coleman, Matt Groening, Frank Kozik, Elizabeth McGrath, Mark Mothersbaugh, Gary Panter, Marion Peck, Alyson Souza and Mark Ryden. A companion book, “La Luz de Jesus 25: The Little Gallery That Could,” documents every work in the show and features personal anecdotes from artists about the gallery and its founder. It can be purchased here.
“Alyson Souza’s expertly painted snakes and lizards are juxtaposed with verses and halos or in other paintings where body organs are separated and highlighted in intricate pictorial detail. One can only wonder if the veteran painter Souza had punk scrawled caricatures filling her late adolescent art school assignments a lá Fiddle Tim. It is a testament to La Luz that the gallery can seamlessly curate at both ends of the “raw” spectrum.”
(Fiddle Tim is the artistic pseudonym of Frances Bean Cobain, 17 years old, an emancipated minor, the daughter of two complexly interwoven musical personalities whose impact on culture rivals that of any of the most successful artists of the 20th century. And she makes art
Her debut solo show, entitled Scumfuck, is up now at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in East Hollywood. La Luz is the major league of Low Brow art, a major step in any fine art career. Hundreds of artists send packets and portfolios each year to attract the attention of gallery founder Billy Shire and gallery director Matt Kennedy. One can imagine that Cobain did not have to wait in the same line as every other artist, but in an art world where if you are not pulling strings you are not part of the art world, this cannot be held against the artist nor the gallery. Since the artist is using a pseudonym, the assumption is that there is a desire to have her work judged free from the context of her famous father, Kurt Cobain, and famous mother, Courtney Love. If that is the case, here is a review for her pseudonym’s show:
Fiddle Tim is a raw artist in need of honing her above average aptitude for drawing. Fiddle Tim’s drawings balance a basic illustration approach with a scruffy (but delicately painted) texture, all aptly composed and not glopped on or glittered like so much trendy low brow attempts at feigning real experience in a cartoon culture. Her themes draw from abject personalities in search of nihilistic power: Jim Jones, infamous punk anti-legend GG Allin, and a recurring specter who makes demands of the viewer with the threat of eating the sun if they are not met.
Another recurring character is an obese nude that seems quite comfortable in his/her own skin, its rolls of flesh drawn with sickly wrinkles are easily the most unique and successful drawings in the show, and simultaneously the ugliest. But with her themes of tortuous anti-heroes pausing in their selfish devastation, it is no stretch to assume that her obese characters are quite -purposefully ugly; one of her Obesities is announcing “I don’t give a shit” in a drawing entitled Goat Shit (the goat he/she stands next to is the most delicately drawn character in the entire exhibit); the other Obesity is drooling at the mouth under the phrase “Chocolate from the Bald Man” and sporting a jail cell heart tattoo on his/her shoulder reading “health care”.
While the work is far from trendy, it has its roots in the ever-unassailable school of black leather self-hating punk. Fiddle Tim’s eight small drawings are ensconced on the walls of the gallery amidst slick day-glo acrylic cartoon popsters. But a kindred art ally is near on an adjoining wall where Alyson Souza‘s expertly painted snakes and lizards are juxtaposed with verses and halos or in other paintings where body organs are separated and highlighted in intricate pictorial detail. One can only wonder if the veteran painter Souza had punk scrawled caricatures filling her late adolescent art school assignments a lá Fiddle Tim. It is a testament to La Luz that the gallery can seamlessly curate at both ends of the “raw” spectrum.
But of course a second review becomes necessary knowing who the artist is. Cobain has placed her portrait of the late GG Allin in the center of this grouping of eight framed drawings. Like her father he was punk singer and heroin addict. Unlike her father he was “pure” in punk rock legend for never becoming famous (beyond punk infamy) or successful. In punk lore, no artist went further in his rejection of all social mores than New Hampshire’s Jesus Christ Allin. The daughter of two fucked-up punk rock casualties renders the son of two hippies fucked up enough to name their son “Jesus Christ.” That his younger brother could not pronounce his name was how he came to be called GG, and he is pictured by Cobain bloody and brooding, his “Life Sucks” and “Scumfuck” tattoos rendered with more clarity than GG’s were in real life. Anyone with a lick of punk street smarts knows that the tender sadness Cobain renders in Allin’s tired eyes is also the preparation of creating ever more destructive mayhem with no consideration of the consequences. Cobain’s work is at its conceptual harshest when its the rendering is soft and simple. Yikes! Kind of like a Nirvana song.
Cult leader Jim Jones is pictured, sideburns and all, in The Ballad of Jim Jones holding a toothbrush as his victims are sperm cell-like organisms with simple faces of death. Allin and Jones are two sides of the same coin: the power of one’s self-hatred as the means to destroy.
If her Obesities discussed above are self-portraits, a working through that late-teen developmental state of hating and loving our own bodies, could the eerie Spector Hector reveal her relationship to her deceased father? A yellowed, fetid head shaped somewhat like Gumby has an asymmetrically disjointed left eye, and its right eye is just a socket. The most delicately colored piece in the show, does it show us a vision of Kurt Cobain rejecting his daughter’s love with the admonition (which is painted below the head’s purple neck) “Treat me like your mother or I’ll eat the sun.” Does her fixation on “icons of filth” like Jones and Allin allow Cobain to more easily accept and process the punk rock world of her destructive parents? With restraining orders against her mother and a long-dead father seemingly pictured as rotting and insisting that there can be no redemption with him, is love a luxury that this talented heiress can never afford? If so, at least Frances Bean Cobain will always have her art.
“…all those little dots are painted by hand. Amazing.”
By: Robert Boyd
Lots of good openings this past weekend. I’m not totally sure what to think of Alyson Souza’s work. On one hand, it seems overly clever and “wacky.” But what made me decide I liked it in the end was her juicy impasto. It was, in a way, the last technique one would expect for the pieces on view.
What you can’t really see in this photo is that the piece is actually constructed of several overlapping pieces of wood, each painted. Also, this image doesn’t give you quite the full effect of the impasto. The pieces are exceptionally well-constructed. The oddball mixture of “typefaces” (all laboriously painted by hand) recalls Victorian design, as does the Pre-Raphaelite color sense.
The text, with its ironic descriptions of its subjects as thinking machines, is strictly 21st century. To me, the texts are the weakest aspect of the work. While I can imagine living with the beautifully crafted and painted faces for a good long time, I’m not sure I would want to be reading the “clever,” “humorous” texts after a few years. They seem the opposite of timeless.
But that’s me. And maybe after a period of time I’d stop noticing the text and concentrate on the image, the shaped of the letters, the gooey thick paint, the curves of each wooden plane–all of which are delightful.
wanted to show this one because of the “half-tone” on the face. Obviously her source is a photograph, possibly of another painting, that has been half-toned for printed reproduction. In her version of it, all those little dots are painted by hand. Amazing.
According to the Nau-Haus website, Souza is the daughter of Al Souza, the UH professor and generally widely admired Houston artist. I’m trying to think of a way to connect the work of father and daughter. Al often makes pieces out of layers of jigsaw puzzles. Alyson also layers her work, and the wood appears to have been cut with a jigsaw… That’s all I got.
“Alyson Souza works with oil, wood and mixed media, exploring the perspective of the individual as part of something larger.”
Direct Art “Featured Artist”, Fall 2007.