DeSouza essay ‘in response to’ Art Speak

Paying homage seems so reasonable, so modest, such an honorable thing to do. But like the long-winded toast that becomes an aria to me, me, me, or the oversized introduction that leaves the reader with little appetite to read the book itself, the homage can be perilously self-reflexive and solipsistic.

Perhaps that’s why artists today choose more neutral, spongy terms to describe how their work relates to famous precedents, terms like “inspired by” or “in response to.” Allan deSouza’s photographic essay, “The World Series,” is presented by the Phillips Collection with the generic and not very revealing latter term, as “in response to” Jacob Lawrence’s “The Great Migration.”

The two sets of images — Lawrence’s classic work of African American modernism and deSouza’s series of 30 color photographs — both treat issues of travel and displacement. But in deSouza’s well-made and often ironic collection of images there’s clearly no homage, no modest submission to Lawrence’s earlier work, begun in 1940 when the Harlem-based artist was still in his early 20s.

Indeed, as so often with “in response to” projects, the differences seem more salient than the similarities. Lawrence’s set of 60 paintings (30 of which are on permanent display at the Phillips, the other 30 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) deals with a specific historical drama, the mass movement of African Americans from the agricultural South to the industrial North, which began around 1910 and continued until the rusting out of American factories set in around 1970.

Lawrence told his story with boldly colored but flatly rendered panels, responding to modernist trends but focusing with anachronistic intensity on the story itself. He accompanied his panels with captions that are simple and expository but also strangely reminiscent of the voice of God narration in documentaries from the 1930s and ’40s.

DeSouza’s photographs tell no single story and hang together not by a narrative thread, but by webs of visual association. In his first image, a sign reads, enigmatically: “If you know what you’re looking for the backward glance can be a glimpse into the future.” Next to it, an image of men standing together shows one figure pointing, perhaps backward. Visual associations (between birds and airplanes, between the word “Indian” and Mahatma Gandhi, between icons of welcome and exclusion) give the cycle moment-by-moment, frame-by-frame coherence. But not an overall sense of message, beyond a compelling feeling of dislocation and disorientation, rather like the feeling of “if it’s Tuesday it must be Abu Dhabi.”

The differences between de­Souza’s series and the work it is “in response to” set up an unfortunate series of contrasts: Between deSouza’s cleverness and Lawrence’s depth of feeling, between a string of one-liners and an organized narrative, between the polished surface of the photograph and the often clumsy organization of Lawrence’s intentionally primitive imagery. Even the titles of the two works emphasize a gulf between irony and sincerity. “The World Series” is an obvious play on games, while “The Great Migration” is almost painfully serious in its reference to a historical event that Lawrence eagerly sought to publicize.

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