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Is Allan deSouza a masochist? Filled withhubris? I’m guessing a bit of both. In his new exhibition as part of the Phillips Collection’s “Intersections” program, the San Francisco multimedia artist responds to “The Migration Series,” the painter Jacob Lawrence’s 59-panel grouping of paintings that traces the bittersweet migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North in the early- to mid-20th century. The series, from 1940 and 1941, is justly considered a jewel of American art.
DeSouza’s show “The World Series”—get it?—follows not one route but many, hopscotching from California and rural Vermont to Paris, New Delhi, and elsewhere, presenting audio and photographic images from his travels that, according to press materials, are “poetic, humorous and indirectly yet poignantly political.”
That description suggests some promise, and a number of deSouza’s images are indeed notable—a photograph of seven airport workers standing on a disorientingly planar tarmac, an image with a disarmingly elegant shadow of a flying airplane cast on a cloud, a dead bird in repose on pavement, a bright green layer of seaweed on a rock, and ice crystals forming on a windshield that are easily mistaken for a flock of birds.
DeSouza dwells on the idea of transportation with a keen eye for subtle absurdities, such as zombie-like passengers in a wide-body jet who are seen only by the backs of their heads; a claustrophobic revolving door at an airport; and a partially ripped warning sign in which the crossed-out figure finds himself bent over at an eccentrically uncomfortable angle.
With some cuts, deSouza’s meditations on the vagaries of modern migration might have yielded a tautly constructed theme. But an excess of trifles (a statue of Gandhi with a flag-topped dome seemingly sticking out of his head) and distractions (an image of a couple of Tea Party–esque protesters) prevent “The World Series” from cohering. In contrast, Lawrence’s series offers much that deSouza’s does not: It’s visually and thematically unified, infused with deep pathos, and addresses a historical event of significant gravity.
If the placement of “The World Series” next to “The Migration Series” had been a glitch—say, a space-allocation miscue—it would be churlish to blame deSouza for the implied comparison. But this pairing was no accident, and the accompanying materials compare the two artists’ works at length. They suggest that deSouza’s series “inevitably expose[s] the power relationships as well [as] racial, ethnic and gender differences” and that “DeSouza aims to cross the borders of specific history, location and ethnicity and enter a fictional journey that prompts questions of dislocation, displacement and self-realization.”
DeSouza’s background—someone of Indian descent born in Kenya who immigrated to the U.K. and now works in San Francisco—certainly offers him a unique perspective that could have produced a compelling series. But detailing such lofty goals does him no favors in the presence of a masterwork. “The World Series” would be better off as a solo show, judged on its own merits.
Still, deSouza’s exhibit does have one accidental benefit: It prods you to see Lawrence’s works once again. And that’s never a bad thing.