Alison Saar in Los Angeles: rough, bloody and undaunted

The black female protagonists of Alison Saar’s sculptures, paintings and installations confront myriad encumbrances — some balance burdens on their heads; others are suspended on chairs, fabrics, or ropes — yet they never seem to lose their courage or agency. Each figure’s expression conveys an indomitable spirit.

Often, the women’s workaday tools and even their bodies take on magical powers, such as in the painting “High Cotton” (2017), where plantation implements double as weapons for a platoon of enslaved girls. Their deep blue hair mystically sprouts cotton-topped branches as camouflage in a nocturnal field.

This piece is one of nearly 30 comprising Of Aether and Earthe, an exhibition offering a bird’s-eye view of the intersection of blackness and femininity in Saar’s work over the past four decades. Her largest museum survey to date, it spans two Los Angeles County venues, the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College in Claremont and the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.

Alison Saar, whose work is surveyed in her largest museum show to date © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

Curators Rebecca McGrew and Irene Tsatsos have adroitly employed the bifurcated format to play on dualities. Intermingling myths of ancient Greece with folklore and traditions from Africa and beyond, Saar’s work frequently conveys the feeling of straddling two realms. Highlighting the dichotomy between body and soul that runs through her oeuvre, the show’s title refers to the five classical elements of ancient Greece: earth, air, fire, water and aether. It also bears alchemical connotations, suggesting the transmutative nature of her practice of imbuing found objects and historic icons with fresh meanings.

Saar’s wide-ranging academic background in art history is evident in her lone figures’ stiff poses and simplified forms, which appear as indebted to Greek male kouroi statues as to stone-carved sculptures by self-taught Southern folk artist William Edmondson — as in “Sea of Serenity” (2007). Her stylised subjects often bring to mind those of Gauguin, but they subvert traditions of the female nude as a passive object of desire: hers represent mettlesome forces of transformation.

In rugged contrast to the smooth, supple flesh fetishised throughout western art history, these women are made of tougher stuff: wood, nails, salvaged metal hammered into repoussé low-relief patterns. Scarified, they wear their histories on their bodies, as in “Scar Song” (1989). Contributing to the sober mood, Saar’s palette consists mostly of earth tones punctuated by fiery reds and oceanic blues.

‘Sea of Serenity’ (2007) © Ian Byers-Gamber

Executed on seed sacks and denim, even her paintings are torn, wounded and patched together. Worn but resilient, they recall African American quilts and the male-dominated, utilitarian Ghanaian tradition of painting movie posters on discarded fabrics.

Saar has recalled, how, while growing up in Laurel Canyon, LA, she scavenged cast-off items and made dolls with ornate backstories for her parents to sell in their booth at the local renaissance pleasure faire (a festival which recreates a historical setting), an activity to which she attributes her work’s narrative content.

Doll-like in scale, the earliest work in the exhibition, “Voluptuous Mummy” (1982), is a centrepiece of the Benton show. The third sculpture she produced shortly after earning her MFA, it represents what the artist, who had previously favoured abstraction, describes as an “epiphany moment” when she adopted figuration as the “most direct way to talk about abstract ideas of the spirit and the unseen”.

‘Sapphire’ (1985) © Ian Byers-Gamber

‘Inheritance’ (2003) © Ian Byers-Gamber

Presaging the female figures and classical references that have come to define her work, this piece portrays a curvaceous body swaddled in linen scraps that she salvaged from trimmings of 19th-century paintings while working in the restoration studio of her father, ceramicist and conservator Richard Saar. Its face, a tiny mosaic, reflects the influence of her mother, assemblage artist Betye Saar.

There is a similarly compelling female figure in “Breach”, part of her body of work made between 2015-17 which was inspired by the great Mississippi flood of 1927, Hurricane Katrina of 2005 and the bureaucratic mishandling and malfeasance that exacerbated the plights of black communities in their aftermath. The life-size woman stands alone with a pole on a wooden raft, as though the gallery floor were inundated with water. A formidable stack of trunks and washbasins towers atop her head, nearly reaching the ceiling. Undaunted by the deluge and her Atlas-like load, she stands erect and dignified, conveying the sense that she will survive and reach a better destination. She seems just as relevant to more recent scenes from Hurricane Ida and floods in Haiti.

Whereas the Benton’s presentation centres on terrestrial and aquatic themes, the work at the Armory is airier and more spiritual, with sculptures featuring dangling figures, balancing acts and feats of propulsion. The subject of “Blonde Dreams” (1997) is suspended from her ankles, bound by Eurocentric beauty ideals that devalue black women’s natural hair. Her long straight mane shimmers with gold leaf, but her body is covered in tar.

‘Brood’ (2008); Saar has said that the sculpture stemmed partly from her own experience with menopause © Ian Byers-Gamber

Cultures across the globe glamorise superficial signifiers of female fertility even as they compel women to hide more functional reproductive attributes. Challenging this, Saar spotlights the wonder of menstruation and lactation, suggesting that such phenomena might be mystical powers. A creepy lyricism permeates “Undone” (2012), where a girl sits in a levitating chair, clutching the folds of her flowing white gown, whose translucence barely conceals a blood-red branch extending downward, tied with ribbons and bottles.

Nearby, the protagonist of “Brood” (2008) perches precariously on a stack of wooden children’s chairs, staring through her fingers at a fallen pomegranate. A pile of the fruits rots on the floor below; none remain within reach. Enhancing the uneasy atmosphere, her complexion is mottled, and trickles of bloody juice drip down her legs. The artist has said that this sculpture stemmed partly from her own experience with menopause shortly after the birth of her daughter.

Though rooted in highly personal episodes, the situations and themes of Saar’s work are timeless and universal. In drawing upon myths from a wide range of cultures and eras, the artist succeeds in creating open-ended totems whose social commentaries can evolve to fit new conditions.

In ‘Hygiea’ (2020), a charwoman is reimagined as the Greek goddess of hygiene © Ian Byers-Gamber

This exhibition was conceived before Covid-19 and last year’s racial justice protests, but its two newest pieces, both of which focus on cleansing, seem uncannily appropriate for a society seeking to clear its air of infection and injustice alike. In “Hygiea” (2020), a humble charwoman is reimagined as the Greek goddess of hygiene, wielding a silver double-headed broom as a wand. Suffused with a soothing soundtrack of sweeping and dripping, the dimly lit chamber she inhabits evokes a janitor’s closet converted into a secret refuge adorned with mysterious bottles and pans.

In addition to her studio practice, Saar is a prolific public sculptor. The Benton has christened its newly constructed building by commissioning a site-specific sculpture, “Imbue” (2020), included in this show. Bathed in an aquamarine patina, it portrays a modern washerwoman as Yemoja, the west African water deity, in the dry landscape of a courtyard. There she will stand indefinitely, perpetually pouring bronze water in symbolic purification of whatever ills may come.

‘Alison Saar: Of Aether and Earthe’ runs at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena to December 12 and Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College in Claremont to December 19

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