Pablo Picasso in three of his Cubist still lifes from 1912. Published two years before the start of World War I, the propaganda aims to drum up public favor for the national air force. But Picasso's self -contradictory rendition alters the focus and mood of the military's simple pun. On the other hand, set among the pictures' dynamic planes, the pamphlet's rallying cry seems to have been commandeered to hail Picasso's avant-garde maneuvers. And on the other, its rousing message has been slyly and utterly debunked. Made to jostle for legibility among the leftover of the artist's lunch, "the future" that "is in the air" concedes that nothing is certain. Everything is up for grabs.
I thought of Picasso's still lifes when I saw new works by Seher Shah and Allan deSouza on display in New York this winter. Both artists draw on the ace Modernist's appropriative and transformative visual practice to react to the paranoia and polarization of our own time. But their responses are ultimately quite different from each ot11er. Echoing something of the high spirits with which Picasso braved a new pictorial world, Seher Shah's large-scale drawings at the Bose Pacia Gallery (in a show, titled, Jihad Pop, from January 11th to February 23rd) riffed on the Kaaba monuments, combs, and inner courtyards. These drawings strove to reclaim both the universal and personal significance of politicized terms and cube-like forms. On view at the Talwar Gallery are Allan de Souza's works in a show, titled, (I don't care what you say): Those are not Tourist Photos, from January 11th to March 29th, did not have such idealistic aim. Like Picasso and Freud, deSouza knows that there's nothing like a good joke for revealing the truth that is deep and problematic. The wry photo-assemblages and mirror-image prim engaged the spectator with a take on how we create false realities.
Seher hah's treatment of some of Islam's most important cultural forms and symbols set them free to generate new associations. The Kaaba in Kaaba 3 was a white cube seen from above, nestled in a shadowy hollow. A diagonal trajectory of planes zoomed through it toward the viewer. Smaller, simpler cubes hurtled beyond it; so he became cruciform.
Did these works refer to a vision of dynamic Islam offered in response to rigid orthodoxies? Did the show's provocative title indicate Shah's faith in the productive meeting of opposites? Shah used black and white colors; created push-me-pull-you spaces; invited comparison of Islamic and Christian symbols; and achieved simultaneous tones of euphoria and restraint by marrying the rigor of architectural rendering with the intuitive method of developing compositions.
Shah did not think, however, that her work dealt with spiritual matters. Her focus on the Kaaba, she said, derived from its being a cube, which was a universal form. And her visual language was a vehicle to explore its possible personal meanings. Her title similarly referred to a more circumscribed set of ideas than its surprising conjunction of disparate terms connoted. Shah wanted to take back and bring our the meaning of jihad as "self-analysis.• "Pop" acknowledged the importance of graffiti, stencil, and other urban art forms that she had come in contact with during her young, well-traveled life.
At a time when dogmatism and ignorance, fear, and hostility are on the rise within and between the world's various communities, Shah's decision to reclaim a contested, misunderstood term was quite brave. Her desire to declare and extol common ground was generous. However, at times, Shah seemed to withdraw from the implications of her project despite her eagerness to incorporate contradictions and tensions in her works. Simply excluding what lay outside her intentions, the work remained callow, the product of a well-insulated, if high-minded perspective. One could counter that her own limiting definitions were meant to keep her loaded images from being misinterpreted, or having too much ascribed to them. But such a defense would only highlight the fundamental problem here: Shah's free-floating position did not adequately reckon with the gravity of the situation she addressed.
With pointed tips and flaring tails, the five stacked photos in each of deSouza's 'UFO's' looked ready for life-off. Sleek and appealing, menacing and ill-fitting, the segments of these spider-legged space ships and jazzy missiles relied on strong tonal contrasts, firm contours and symmetrical jigsaw puzzle fragmentation. They invoked works of early 20th-century urban artists, variously awe-struck and struggling with the incursion of technology into everyday life. From the American scene, Joseph Stella's 'Brooklyn Bridge' comes to mind. But deSouza's practice and skeptical point of view shared lens with those Cubo-Futurist paeans to engineering than they did with the photomontages of Charles Sheeler; they offered a far more ambivalent take on the intersection of man and machine.
Like the American artist's hybrid residential industrial landscapes, deSouza's flying machines were obviously fabricated. Even casual scrutiny revealed the shadow play involved: the cropped views of plane bodies, luggage carts, and runway directional signals have been reoriented, halved, and doubled to create mirror images. As a result of these manipulations, deSouza's constructions inspired a variety of associations. From childhood dreams of space travel to the fascination of extraterrestrial visitation, they also suggested the folly of the arms race and the dangerous militarization of space. In light of the five-year war in Iraq, the wry artist probably had American foreign policy on his mind as well: the fleet of impossible rockets suggested just what a dangerous fantasy it was to spread democracy through acts of war.
More explicitly, the 'UFO's' parodied the excesses permitted by the current climate of fear in America. deSouza snapped the pictures (which he later manipulated) from a plane he regularly took while traveling between his home in LA and San Francisco (where he did a teaching gig). What would a brown guy say to a fellow passenger who looked suspiciously at him taking photographs of speeding runways? Probably, "I don't care what you say, those are not tourist photos"?
Who are the aliens here? Where is the real threat coming from? The exhibition raised these questions. The 'UFO's effectively pointed to that ugly American on the plane and implicated the anti-immigrant and anti-civil rights policies justified by vague and misplaced anxiety. But the works also revealed deSouza's deeper concern with a structural human problem: we all tend to see what we've been told to look out for. Our brains program us this way and the cultures we live in can make the problem worse.
A second, far less engaging set of works seemed to take an uncomplicated pleasure in things extraordinary. A series of cloud, sea, and landscape images, titled 'Divine,' re-envisioned what got overlooked when the miracle of flight became mundane. I found the playful, resonant, and cautionary 'UFO's' profoundly hopeful; deSouza didn't underestimate how difficult it was in a climate of fear to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. His works engage with this condition by negotiating with the slippages between the two- in terms of structure and image construction. He also directed our attention to the way he- without help- created these fictions. Becoming witnesses to the process of perception as misperception, we understood the experience of looking and strove to transcend its limits.
Nearly a hundred years after Picasso painted those small, stunningly relevant still lifes, peril seems ever to loom large on the horizon. Artists and viewers have choices. I enjoy work that offers a vision of a better world, but I need work that urges me to look closely and to look again. The future is always uncertain and everything hangs in the balance.
-Karen Miller Lewis