Alison Saar’s work combines the raw power of tribal art with the postmodern sophistication of complex cultural subtexts. Her work is made in a near devotional way, which infuses a rare emotional intensity into her new narratives on upturning gender and racial hierarchies. Few artists can use visual materials as skillfully to create such powerful political statements. Fewer still can combine aesthetic technique and conceptual acuity in artwork that is so heartfelt it resonates with the viewer viscerally, a sensation akin to listening to a Nina Simone song. This is a rare feat only an exceptional artist can accomplish, which makes her concurrent exhibitions, Syncopation, at L.A Louver, and Chaos in the Kitchen, at Frieze Los Angeles, stand out even amidst the art fair frenzy.
In the central work in both exhibitions, White Guise [see slideshow below], a light-skinned house slave, dressed in a threadbare cotton shift holds an iron dripping with blood. Mulatto house slaves were often the illegitimate children of their slave masters who were privy to information inside the house and could act as spies for their field sisters. The girl appears almost invisible, blending into the background like a ghost because she is eavesdropping. This large woodblock print is a segue to her new work about domestic slaves from her earlier Topsy Turvey series, in which Saar transformed the cotton branches worn in field slaves’ hair for camouflage into the regal crowns of warrior queens. This majestic hairstyle that resembles beautiful stars, re-appears in many Saar works as a leitmotif for emancipation. Saar depicts women who embody galactic feminine power, which cannot be suppressed in any manmade world once women seize it.
Alison Saar, Set to Simmer, 2019 [front and back]
All images courtesy the artist and L.A. Louver
Saar re-invents the meaning of a kitchen as a place where domestic slaves turn into warriors who are ready to protect their turf by re-purposing skillets, pots and spoons into weapons. Kitchen Amazon wears a girdle of skillets in a mythological reference to the Amazonian queen, Hippolyta who wore a magical girdle to signify her authority. The girdle was a gift from her father Ares the god of war which was stripped from her by Hercules when he slew Hippolyta. Saar reinvents the tale by recasting the Amazonian queen as queen of the kitchen using skillets to signify her dominion of the domestic realm. The reclaimed ceiling tin Saar uses over her wood sculptures has a beautiful patina created by a natural aging process — much like that of the vintage cloths she weaves into the accompanying paintings. As the daughter of Betye Saar , she draws on a deep understanding of assemblage art techniques she learned from her mother, and a commitment to fusing recycled materials and storytelling. She recycles mythological tales, weaving the narrative strands together with found materials to create a new feminist narrative.
In a beautiful sculpture, Set to Simmer, a graceful, nude with spiky barbed wire hair and red lips reclines on a red table like a seductive odalisque holding a skillet in one hand, like a hand mirror. Although the pose recalls a concubine temptress, her inward gaze conveys self-confidence in her sexuality — which she owns as a source of personal power. Saar reverses the male gaze by depicting women who refuse to be objectified into passivity. The anger of these oppressed women has reached boiling point and they are prepared to defend themselves. In an accompanying painting with the same title as this sculpture, the red table is set on a rug branded with scorched marks from a stove burner.
The hot comb used as an implement to tame hair re-appears in many of these works. In
The Big Singe, a red female nude figure is carved as the handle on top of a giant 7ft. comb. In
Hot Comb Haint, Caledonia, a ghost-like blue female figure is carved as a handle on a found wire comb. Saar is well known for using hair to signify femininity. In these works, female figures rise above the hot comb, in acts of defiance. Instead of being subjected to a torturous instrument they refuse to tame their hair and release their uninhibited wild energy into the comb handle.
In my conversation with Ms. Saar, she explained that her work “deals with my life as a female of color, and these are thoughts I have about being African American and female.” Many of these works are filled with dark humor, aptly in that, as Saar says, “African Americans survive oppression, bigotry and pain through humor.”
The title Pan Dance Djin is a humorous pun on the absurdity of doing a flirtatious fan dance with an iron skillet. Saar’s dancer emerges like a genie coming out of a moonshine jug, suggesting a drunken hallucination of a burlesque dance that recalls Sally Rands, who was famous for her ostrich feather fan in the 1920s Hollywood. But instead of flirtation, this is a dangerous dance because the skillet is turned into a weapon.
Sorrow’s Kitchen, 2020
In Sorrow’s Kitchen, a blue figure gazes into a large pot and sees her reflection. This sculpture and an accompanying painting both reference a line from Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, where Hurston notes, “I have been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and licked out all the pots.” Saar often paints figures and lips blue to suggest melancholy, distance and coldness. An earlier 1988 blue sculpture, Diva, is inspired by the opera singer Jessye Norman, who Saar insists “could open her mouth and art came out.” The bust has a song bird in her chest, in a reference to the plastic birds put in birdcages to make parakeets sing. The blue color of this bust, in her exhibition at L.A Louver, suggests the transcendent emotional quality of art.
Saar has been interested in the transformative nature of tools since the early 1990s when she made sculptures of figures coming out of brooms. Tools fascinate her as “an extension of the hand to facilitate action” which makes them “a thread between the maker and the made.” She began to re-examine this theme in 2017 with her Topsy Turvey series, in which an army of black slaves transformed tools of field labor into weapons used in revolt against subordination.
Saar uses the jazz term “synocopation” for the title of her mini-survey of prints and sculptures at L.A Louver because the printmaking process involves pulling layer on layer, which she treats as a visual form of syncopation that brings disparate things together. Saar is a master at weaving together references to art history, mythology, African American literature and music in complex narratives underpinned by deeper layers of subtextual meaning. Many of these prints, like Muddy Water, Blackwater Blues, Breach and Stanch, Lethe and Deluge include images of flooding and water related to African American history of flood planes: from The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to the New Orleans flood caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. These haunting images recall songs inspired by the floods, like Bessie Smith’s Black-Water Blues and Muddy Water’s Flood, which lament the tribulations of flood victims.
Girl with a Pearly Earring references Johannes Vermeer’s classical painting, but Saar replaces the seventeenth century Dutch girl wearing an earring with the contrarian Topsy in Harriet Beecher’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who was accused of stealing things including earrings.
These concurrent exhibitions have an urgency which relates to the current outcry of #Me Too, #Times Up, and #Black Lives Matter. But Saar is a veteran feminist artist, much like her mother, Betye Saar, and her sister Lezley. Saar’s deep commitment to making art that cannot be separated from her life gives her work an unmistakable authenticity and truth.
Lita Barrie is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Barrie’s writing has appeared in a wide range of magazines and newspapers in New Zealand and Los Angeles, including Hyperallergic, HuffPost, art ltd, Artweek, and Art New Zealand. An archive of her writing is held at the New Zealand National Library. To read more of her work, visit www.litabarrie.com