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Building Shelter in the Storm of Alienation and Exile

Art review: Betye Saar's works explore the human journey of exile, wandering and beyond.

December 23, 1997|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Betye Saar has always spoken gently through her assemblage and installations. In the '60s and '70s, the veteran L.A. artist made work that ruminated on being black, American and female. Pieces frequently had a satirical edge but avoided confrontation, causing some observers to feel this art lacked focus. That notion is clearly disabused by a national traveling exhibition of recent work visiting the California African-American Museum.

Presented in two linked sections, it first faces viewers with a suite of tableaux collectively called "Ritual and Remembrance." Dates mark separate conception for the pieces but they're arranged to suggest a journey, one as ambiguous as life itself. They consistently reverse normal expectation.

The first provides a pointed example. Called "Diaspora's Spirit," it looks like an Egyptian sarcophagus lid rendered in undulating metal and mounted on a sea chest. Associations suggested by title and cultural reference evoke Old Testament Judaism more readily than the black experience.

It takes some contemplation--if not explanation--to understand that Saar intended the enigmatic pictographs on the coffin lid to represent the hold of a slave ship. Thus an equation is established between the Jewish Diaspora and the enslavement and transportation of African peoples.

At the same moment Saar's context is so ancient it moves away from even these specifics. The work universalizes into questions about alienation and exile. Has any human tribe escaped eviction? Whether the agent was our rapacious selves or random nature, Saar seems to say, we are all children of the banished, the excluded, the outcast. This prologue work unites us as wanderers in search of sanctuary.

Shelter arrives as "The Trickster Room." Through a doorway, the shadow of a skeleton hovers on a magic carpet of metal mattress springs. It looks like the entrance to a Halloween fun house.

Inside stands a ceremonial chair. The back is fashioned of scraggly, antler-like tree branches. Many are capped with little empty bottles. They could have contained either a magic elixir or gin. In either case they function to prevent anyone but a spirit from sitting on the sacrosanct-funky throne.

A fireplace glows near four folding chairs arranged around a table. The top bears prints of hands touching, outspread as if in a seance. The atmosphere is dim and dappled with shadows appropriate to ritual and incantation. This is a place of indoctrination. The matter may be sham, hoodwink or magic. Saar makes no claim, aside from the suggestion that our journey may be eased if we believe in something.

Outside, "Tangled Roots" presents a corner of a graveyard at the last embers of sunset. Myriad hands reach out of the earth, some black, some white, some copper. None are the color of human flesh. Corners are flanked with rocking chairs for children draped with giant diaphanous gowns, one black, one white. Here we've been initiated into life, procreation, death and hints of the unhelpfulness of absolute ideas.

Across the way stands a place called "Mojo Tech." Saar doesn't cop whether it's the celestial city or just some big town. In fact it's a shallow wall relief made of everything from discarded computer parts to enchanted swap-meet amulets. Whatever it is, Saar seems to like its bewitchment.

The exhibition's second part, "Personal Icons," was arranged by independent curator Lizzetta Le-Falle-Collins. It presents a couple dozen small, shallow assemblage boxes. They're in Saar's familiar manner but contents have changed over the years. "Sheba" is an elegantly serene cobalt blue universe that couches a tiny Egyptian goddess on velvet. "Eyes of the Beholder" harks back to earlier folk-inspired work using a cookie mold for eyes that look every which way. "The Token" centers on a delicate black hand holding up a ruby in offering.

Saar has developed a knack for rendering patinas that make pieces look ancient and precious. Contents match. "The Search for Solitude" comfortably combines an Egyptian snake, a Roman deity and the Buddha.

The exhibition is the artist's offering of a passage. It's up to us to decide if we've seen a metaphysical cosmos or walked across a couple of galleries. Saar does not lead the witness. She doesn't pretend to be an organized philosopher. She's at pains not to impose awareness of her skill at stagecraft. She's a poet trying to share wafting thoughts about confronting dread and watching it become docile and reassuring. She's an unassuming master of resonant suggestions that reverberate with wisdom.

* California African-American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, to May 30, closed Mondays, (213) 744-7432.

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