Many of the photographers in this series explore a terra firma geography. Traversing the globe, each finds a concrete place that compels them, and their camera bears witness to it. But as photography increasingly assigns itself to exploring the questions more often asked in certain rarefied zones of the art world, place becomes something interior, and abstract. New York–based Brea Souders creates such a place with her photographic work, one that beckons with mystery, felicity, and eloquence.

Art is in Souders’s genes. Her mother, grandparents, aunt, and cousin were all painters. From an early age she learned how to paint and draw, and went to her mother’s gallery shows. A book on Man Ray inspired a love for photography’s technical outer limits and the Surrealist’s inward focus, and she began shooting in black and white. Souders’s father was a physicist, and she was raised with elaborate chemistry sets, so it’s not surprising that she reveled in darkroom operations and came to approach her studio as a lab in which to experiment with mechanical and natural process, and optical phenomena. Much like a scientist, she isolates primary building blocks from wide-ranging sources and conceives recombinant forms for them. She calls herself a tinkerer, and quite often her raw material is the residue of past experiments.

With a collagist’s puzzle-part invention, Souders has fashioned a personal poetics, both quirky and sublime, around the objects and residual photographic effects she coaxes into her work. A born scavenger, she finds rich meaning in the most ephemeral or mundane stuff around her. Her gift for minimalist design and idiosyncratic color saves her from chaos and results in a blithe balancing act of chance and intention. Her approach is that of a conceptual artist, hammering out delicate frameworks for chasing ideas down rabbit holes into her own cerebral wonderland.

Because her images steer clear of the “real” observed-as-is world, Souders often fields questions about her proper definition: artist who uses photography, photographer who embraces art process, or other qualifying labels. It’s sufficient, says Souders, to call her a photographer, period. She is about the alchemy of turning life thoughtfully into art using photographic means, and that’s credential enough. She juggles pregnant visual cues to freeze time and retrieve it at will, best achieved by building an intimate language of triggers and allusions. Some of these cues are wrested from art history, as in Colors of Napoleon (2010), which features daubs of pigment on an iconic portrait of the emperor. More often, her ties to the past are encoded rather than obvious, and refer to her own life in diaristic playback.

Souders’s primary series include Counterforms and Film Electric. The first began as a pilgrimage to Italy. “I started feeling very envious of Italians and their comfort with history, contemporary life merging with the past. Everybody just seemed so at ease and connected — at least that’s how I saw it. I really longed for that, as an American.” This led to a project of peripatetically examining her European family tree and tracing its influences on her identity and her art. Though the results are not without comic touches, the odyssey is meditative and fruitful.

Film Electric utilizes the random shards of shredded film from Souders’s own discarded archives, shrewdly exploiting the effects of static electricity and light. It’s a sort of visual analogue to William Burroughs’s cut-up technique of finding epiphanies in scrambled text. The works are not just “bits and pieces of my life” — but inquiries into the desultory and fragmented nature of memory. There are hints in her work, one feels, of a possible future path of photography in a dematerialized society, the self-portrait (having been banalized by selfies) evolved into a freewheeling shorthand of personal signs. But Souders adds a disarming caveat to her own work: “Illumination isn’t guaranteed.”

Brea Souders is represented by Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York. Her work will be seen in the group photography show “Makeshift” at Gallery 44 in Ontario, Canada, May 2–30.


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