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ART REVIEWS : A Haunting Collection of Cultural Mementos From Betye Saar

May 22, 1990|SUVAN GEER

Zora Neale Hurston was a black anthropologist and poetic writer dedicated to preserving the richness of black folklore during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. Artist Betye Saar pays haunting tribute to her in "Sanctified Visions" at the Temporary Contemporary, evoking Afro-American spiritualism with icons and altars of nostalgic mementos. The two-room installation is a uniquely apt blending of tutelage and artistic expression.

The first space is an almost barren large room. One curving wall of corrugated tin suggests a shack. In this space we get something of an introduction to Hurston and to a culture most white Americans find alien. Banner-like sequined emblems of flaming hearts, stars and moons that speak of voodoo and cultural icons. A weirdly 20th-Century note amid all this ritualized handiwork is a Jenny Holzer-type electronic sign with rotating messages that play out some of Hurston's memorable phrases, like "Voo doo is ablad dat cuts both ways" and "I am the teeth of time."

Hurston's thirst for preservation and Saar's cultural mementos meet poetically in the second room. On one side is a child's wooden rocking chair covered with carved elephants and tigers and cushioned with fur. A gentle tribute to ethnic roots, it rocks slowly below a small window suspended away from the wall so that light makes shadow patterns behind it. Filled with pieces of lace, fragments of letters and moss, the window is a delicate, window-box scrapbook of memory and dreams.

Central to the space is a large undulating sand lot with 28 clocks partly buried in the dunes. Some tick, some have stopped, some have no hands and so keep no time that matters anyway.

On the far side of the room is a final memory window and a dark bramble of sticks gathered around the stark frame of a metal bed. Devoid of fabric or padding, the mattress sits like an execution device and the pillow is a pile of smooth stones. Below the bed, glowing ominously yet with real beauty is a simple linear blue neon wave.

Saar's installation is much like her altars, a collection of meaningful fragments. Careful attention to the pieces leads to understanding that comes in through the skin more than through the mind. It doesn't really matter when we read Hurston was compelled into studying cultural rituals by the tradition-flaunting request of her mother to die in comfort with a pillow under her head. The bed frame Saar gives us is a hard life and a hard death all at once. That kind of understanding reaches past barriers of time and upbringing. Saar's art serves here as a pragmatic instructor. It gives us cold history warmed by the breath of a human being.

\o7 Temporary Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave., to July 22.

\f7 The Black Experience: Two other artists examine the black cultural experience at the California Afro-American Museum. Painters William H. Johnson and Bob Thompson had brief yet energetic careers in the early and middle parts of this century and each developed a vivid modernist styles. University trained, well traveled but largely ignored by the art establishment, this exhibit makes clear that their work deserves more attention.

Johnson is seen in work from 1939-43. It is devoted to mundane scenes from African-American life. He gives us farmers, nurses and women in crisp gingham sitting in straight back chairs. He painted figures with flat, cartoonish simplicity that unites shapes into potent units. He termed this style "modern primitivism," and indeed it reflects both modernism's love for flatness of form and the refinement and ethnic pride of primitive African artifacts.

Less involved with black culture, Thompson's paintings are bold and inventive plays with undulating, liquid line and organic flat shapes that echo the dynamics of the jazz that inspired them. Subjects from biblical and mythological themes are only jumping-off points that allow dramatic encounters with punchy color, refined shape and ambiguous space. Quite simply, the paintings are smashing; intelligent and witty. Hopefully, this exhibition of only six years of work will stimulate more extensive exhibitions of his paintings.

\o7 California Afro-American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, to Aug. 5.

\f7

Seeing the Light: Chilean-born artist Alfredo Jaar has made a career out of wiping away the anesthetizing film of indifference that hides the lives of the "have nots" from the eyes of the "haves."

Two installations of photo-mural light boxes have a Madison Avenue glitz that makes their message hard to ignore. They give a face to the economic desperation of the Third World and bridge the numbing gap of geography.

The most compelling is "Ocean," a long blue photographic line of choppy sea swells mounted on five square boxes that light the darkened gallery with a wonderfully rolling sense of liquid motion. As the viewer approaches the "sea," faces appear in a row of mirror on the horizon. Only by peering purposefully do we discern the faces as those of refugee boat people. The ocean here is as much a barrier to visibility as it is in real life.

Connecting minimalism's coolness to advertising's pursuit of persuasive imagery, Jaar is the ideal artist for the contemporary postmodern scene. The kicker though is that in place of product or empty art about art phrases Jaar makes work with conscience. And pointedly, the viewer moving around the pieces is a partner in realizing the moral dilemmas Jaar points up.

\o7 Meyers/Bloom, 2112 Broadway, Santa Monica to June 16.

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