There is something that feels a bit like cheating in Anton Christian and Al Souza’s Edinburgh Connection. The collaboration began with handsome old books, the kind with gleaming gilded edges, packed with ornate engravings of generals staring heroically into the distance. These were objects already loaded with craft, so finding visual inspiration must’ve been a bit like those early days of the California Gold Rush-little nuggets of beauty there for the taking. But rather than churning out the tired tropes of “book art,” (book as object or landscape or even archaic reading device) they’ve managed to imbue them with a delicate balance of humor and subversion.
Christian picks apart the engravings’ contents, positioning his elegantly uniformed characters above blood-soaked battlefields. The gore is splashed with painterly concern, but it’s stickiness is not at all muted. The effect is not only a literal deconstruction of well-composed images, but a conceptual dissection as well. Individuals are unidentified and therefore generalized, becoming stand-ins for all 18th-century “men of means.” The torchbearers of the Enlightenment, they are too high-minded to wallow in the mire of their hypocrisy. The viscera of the battles they created seems to pass unnoticed under their aquiline noses. But Christian doesn’t indulge himself in too much finger-wagging, (hindsight being 20/20, etc). He tosses in some levity for balance. In one notable example, the artist focuses his collage solely on the beards of his subjects. Their self-styled regal-ness becomes a parody.
Christian’s collages are necessarily small, as it appears that he and Souza gutted the actual books for this endeavor. Souza’s similarly scaled sculptures occupy pedestals and vitrines near the wall-work. He’s hacked apart the shining edges of the books, stuffing them into a variety of antique containers. Each box or tin or wooden stump is jammed to its brim with dismembered book parts. The function of the containers is realized, but the books (at least their content) is entirely neutralized.
We’ve all been warned that history is written by the “winning” side, but Edinburgh Connection reminds us of the possibility of artistic re-interpretation. These books recorded history from a particular bias, but their visual language of heroic portraiture, gold and marbled inserts is exactly what gives Souza and Christian’s work it’s visual power.