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Comparing the Contrasts of Women's Images

In the 'Body Politics' exhibition at UCLA Fowler Museum, sculpture by L.A.'s Alison Saar pairs with 19th century African artifacts, a juxtaposition that works on paper.


Great ideas do not always lead to great exhibitions. Nor do bad ideas necessarily result in boring shows. That's because it's impossible to hang an idea on a wall, place it on a pedestal or set it in a vitrine.

When works of art are put on display, they rarely behave as expected. And when viewers enter the picture, all hell breaks loose: A large part of art's power is based in the unpredictability of the passions it stirs and the intensity of the responses it generates. When the dust settles, the experiences viewers take away from an exhibition are of far greater consequence than the intentions that went into its organization.

"Body Politics: The Female Image in Luba Art and the Sculpture of Alison Saar" makes more sense on paper than it does in person. The fine catalog that accompanies the ambitious exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History makes a stronger argument than the show itself, which juxtaposes 29 works the L.A.-based sculptor has made over the past 20 years with 53 artifacts carved by various artists and craftspeople throughout the 19th century in Luba, a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The compare-and-contrast exercise that curator Mary Nooter Roberts undertakes in the catalog is more effective than the one that unfolds in the show, because printed images downplay the physical differences between Saar's figurative sculptures and the antique statues, stools, headrests, staffs, pendants, bowls, axes, bow stands and divining instruments from Central Africa.

Lost in the process of photographic reproduction is a sense of scale. In the flesh, Saar's roughhewn sculptures are often life-size or larger. Some nudes, covered with sections of embossed tin ceiling tiles that have been hammered in patchwork patterns, stand eye to eye with viewers. The grandest, however, are four disembodied heads that appear to belong to a race of giants.

In contrast, the art of Luba is compact. Its squat little stools, all of which depict one or two women holding their arms overhead to support a contoured seat, are carved with such detail that they draw you into their miniature worlds.

Measuring less than 8 inches tall, the headrests are also masterpieces of efficiency. Strength, suffering and serenity are expressed in the best ones, whose sophistication is stunning.

Both types of beautifully decorated utilitarian objects exemplify tour-de-force representation. The artisans who carved these fantastic pieces switched styles and scales as effortlessly as a studio musician might segue from jazz to classical to pop, rock, hip-hop and rap--without missing a beat and without breaking the harmony into a cacophonous collage of disparate elements.

For example, some of the radically stylized figures have feet that are little more than outlines cut into the object's base, legs that are thicker than they are long and torsos covered with abstract patterns (which relate to actual scarifications). Their breasts often appear to have been created by Fernand Leger (or Madonna's costume designer). Their arms marry functional simplicity and gestural grace. Each of their faces is a world unto itself, with simplified features that convey complex emotions with an incredible economy of means. Even more extraordinary are their hairdos, some of which rise out of their heads like futuristic architecture.

In person, size isn't all that distinguishes the art of Luba from Saar's sculptures, many of which are intimately scaled. More important is the physical presence each embodies.

In general, the contemporary sculptor's figures are asymmetrical and static, a combination that makes them seem to be tentative and vulnerable, if not unresolved. Most look as if they've been around since yesteryear, their once shiny copper skins covered with a lovely aqua patina.

Others appear to have suffered greater damage. Shards of glass stick through the feet of a doll-size woman, who puts a brave face on her silent pain. Dozens of nails protrude from a reclining figure, which has been wrapped with barbed wire and iron straps and painted dark blue. The heads of the nails that hold the embossed tin sheets to the wooden figures likewise leave an impression of painful perseverance.

More often than not, Saar's symbolic women invite a viewer's pity, particularly the ones that stand as stiff as cigar-store Indians. Even those that strike tough poses, like "Sledgehammer Mama" and "Afro-Di(e)ty," lack the authority and majesty of the historical works.

Part of this is due to the mastery with which the Luba art was carved, whether in wood, bone, ivory or hippopotamus tooth. But it also has a lot to do with the contexts of the two types of work.

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