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Arts & Culture

Al Souza delivers more fundamentals at Shelton Gallery show

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Marbling 20, 2012, cut paper. Photo: David Shelton Gallery.

Books, magazines, and newspapers are migrating to computers, phones, and tablets; the glowing screen's triumph over paper seems certain. This current stage of writing's long history brings quicker and wider access to print, but confusion, too. Texts have become unstable, changing or disappearing altogether as their electronic pages are overwritten or deleted. Once upon a time, we fondly insist, the world was different.

Layers of powdered gold and fading rows of scalloped hues fill the stark, hand-made frames of Al Souza's "Bookworks," a portion of his exhibition currently on view at David Shelton Gallery. The collection is aptly named, as the soft forms are constructed from the gilt and marbleized paper edges of 19th and early 20th century books. Beautiful examples of the bookmaker's art, the volumes are now cast-offs, junk — unwanted titles purchased in bulk by the artist from used bookstores and deaccessioning college libraries near his studio in western Massachusetts. The frames of raw oak, maple, and blue-tinged poplar are made from old wood, much of it left over from construction 40 years ago when he built the studio.

Souza carefully disassembles the books; the covers are removed, spines and sewn signatures cut away, then the block of pages is sliced into three-quarter-inch sections with an X-Acto knife. The first cut reveals yellowish-gray paper riddled with cuts like wormholes — hollow furrows where string once stitched folded sheets together. These are gathered up to make the Backworks series, monotone counterpart to the series of gilt and colored edges. The next cuts into the meat of text Souza calls the Gibberish series; layers of sliced print pepper the cut leaves. The piled gold edges are named Maktub, Arabic for "it is written," an Islamic allusion to fate.

Visually, the pieces are successful shape-making. Held under glass within the wood frames, the lines of horizontally stacked leaves are intersected by vertical and diagonal strokes, forming delicate, painterly compositions. Artists have been cutting up printed matter for at least a century, but Souza's disassembled books have more in common with the adaptive reuse of old buildings by architects than the collage tradition that Robert Rauschenberg inherited from Kurt Schwitters. Like stone buildings, leather-bound books with dressed edges were made to last. Parted out and repurposed as artworks, their bits still hold an aura of preciousness and durability. But in spite of the materiality of the paper, one is reminded of fake libraries lined with empty embossed leather spines. Emblems of good taste, these remnants are the patina of bookishness.

Appropriated images and texts culled from advertisements, playbills and magazines have been used in Pop art to draw attention to our ephemeral surroundings since the 1950s, but Souza's text-less pieces point, whether by intention or accident, to a post-Pop world that we do not understand yet. The old pages are present, but their stories are missing. This is appropriate. Fungible, interactive, and ever-changing electronic text is everywhere now. But never in books.

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