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Puzzle Palace 

Where to begin? Make a good start and all the rest falls in place, or so they say. Start off wrong and it all becomes a muddle, a baffle box of red herrings and trails leading nowhere. So it is in art, life and, uh ... apparently jigsaw puzzles, as seen in Houston artist Al Souza's picture puzzle collages at Arthur Roger.

Granted, it sounds a little goofy at first; there is something slightly nerdy about picture puzzles, after all. In these parts, they are mainly encouraged among the young as an aid to hand-eye coordination, but up North, adults do picture puzzles while snow-bound in spots like Scranton, Penn. Souza made his earlier collages from second-hand puzzles, but lately has opted for the brighter and more vivid new ones, right out the box. Like baroque mosaics of cheesy kitsch, their colorful, cobbled together forms effervesce into polychrome miasmas of frothy dime store pointillism when seen from a distance. The colors are very pop, as are many of the images, but you have to get right up on them to appreciate how their crazy quilt patchworks fit -- and don't fit -- together.

Yum Yum is quintessential Souza, a big, diabolical cornucopia of deli snacks arranged in incessant profusion. Like a psychedelic salad bar in hell, it's a consumerist nightmare of processed animal and vegetable matter rendered in glowing, radioactive colors, but with no particular cohesion, as tsunamis of pizza, sherbet, smoked salmon, lettuce and chocolate candies seismically radiate outward from no apparent epicenter. Crafted from snippets of picture puzzles that relate thematically without actually meshing in any coherent way, Yum possesses the near-pornographic presence of body parts collaged together with more interest in sensual excess than in context or decorum. Collages originated with surrealist notions of random association, poetic or otherwise, and pop art is an offshoot of that process. Souza's antecedents include Richard Hamilton's 1956 pop collages of garish interiors brimming with consumer items, as well as some of Warhol's equally garish silkscreens of the '60s.

Black Cat is no less lurid, even though its subjects, wild and domestic animals, are nominally innocent by nature. Here they appear with all the mawkish sentimentality of pet-shop brochures yet in no coherent order, as parakeets, Dalmatians, snowy owls, rabbits, goldfish and cockatoos seemingly congeal in claustrophobic clusters of coagulated naturalism. All of which suggests that, at least in Souza's view, the animal kingdom may have become yet another fantasy for mass consumption.

Dissociated and disorienting, it's all held together by Souza's fastidious flair for formal design; a product, perhaps, of his years as an aircraft engineer. Despite the disjointedness, all those similarly shaped puzzle pieces provide a subliminal sense of cohesion that helps to tie things together in some purely visual way. A fun show that employs kitschy images to make wry comments about art, design and the commodification of almost everything.

In the case of Matthew Sontheimer, whose enigmatic efforts hang in the adjacent chambers, the handwriting is on the wall. Not his own but his father's, in the form of his signature recalibrated in elaborately cryptic configurations. Building on his last show of drawings that came across like seismograph readings from a bad day in L.A., there is no shortage of zigzags here, either. And like bad handwriting, neither is there is any shortage of ambiguity.

Blind S might be a stock comparison chart, a Zen sketch of a mountain range or perhaps a thread from the carpet, unraveled and folded back on itself. Others evoke contour maps of Afghanistan, precisely corrected proofs of manuscripts written in some unknown tongue, or surprise polygraphs randomly administered at the state capital. Rendered precisely on Mylar, most evoke official business, yet may be too whimsical to be taken at face value. Capitalizing on the postmodern obsession with text over image, with code over chiaroscuro, with deconstruction over composition, they intrigue with their innuendo of veiled secrets and concealed meanings, while leaving all else to the viewer's imagination. In other words, the artist is a tease. Austere and hermetic, yes, but oddly effective in provoking maximal intrigue from seemingly minimal means.

click to enlarge In the lurid Black Cat, as in many of his collages, Al Souza sees an animal kingdom that has become yet another fantasy for mass consumption.
  • In the lurid Black Cat, as in many of his collages, Al Souza sees an animal kingdom that has become yet another fantasy for mass consumption.
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Speaking of Through Feb. 23, Constructions By Al Souza, Paintings By Matthew Sontheimer

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