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The works get very personal for Lezley Saar

'Inscribing Meaning' pieces remind the artist of the challenges of her autistic daughter.

January 01, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Lezley Saar is only slightly out of her element in "Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art" at UCLA's Fowler Museum.

An artist who became known for transforming old books into assemblages, she is now making strange wall pieces that she likens to a new form of language. So, without much hesitation, she agrees to walk through the sprawling exhibition and talk about pieces that pique her interest. That means perusing more than 100 African works that explore relationships between art and written communication throughout history, so she gets right down to business.

"Artists are more interested in what they are thinking about now than what they did in the past," she says, walking straight through a section on artists' books and heading for "Samira's Story," a big, bold, contemporary wall piece by Fathi Hassan in a gallery devoted to word play. Working in black acrylic on unstretched canvas, the artist has filled all but the border of the fabric with loosely brushed black script that appears to be a form of Arabic. A few large characters stand out against a calligraphic background of smaller "writing," which spills into the border on the bottom.

"This appeals to me on a visual level, an abstract level," Saar says. "I have the sense that he is playing with the script, stretching and altering it to create some sort of language. My first impression -- I try to look before reading the labels -- is that this is a bird's eye view of a landscape. There might be water, rivers going through here. It's very beautiful."

Beyond its palette, the painting bears little resemblance to Saar's recent work. She shoots black-and-white photographs of landscapes and kitschy statuary -- whatever catches her eye -- cuts out circular sections of the prints and mounts them on white paper backgrounds. Then she encapsulates the circles in ink-drawn networks of roots, vines, drips, sprouts and foliage. Like mirrored bubbles or peep-holes, the little round pictures seem to exist in a fantasy world.

But there's a back story.

A member of a prominent artistic family, Saar is often identified with her assemblagist mother, Betye, and sculptor sister, Alison. But Lezley's new work reflects the complexities and frustrations of figuring out modes of communication used by her 16-year-old autistic daughter. Titles of works in her recent show at Walter Maciel Gallery -- such as "Well, consider this about villains of the month," "No guests eating other guests" and "The pail stays in the freakin kitchen" -- are taken from repetitive statements made by her daughter.

"This makes me think of what I'm doing now," Saar says of Hassan's work. "Not using text so much, except for titles taken from bizarre things my daughter has said. But I feel that I am creating a language from five sources: botany, anatomy, tattoos, cartoons or caricatures and Japanese landscapes. Instead of drawing in one style, I use different styles or sources as parts of speech. An image from a tattoo magazine might be a noun; something Japanese might be an adjective; something botanical, a verb.

"I start without planning, more like the process of writing and seeing where it leads. I think about it as symbols and graphics and language, and then use photographs related to the idea of another world. There is reality in the photographs, but they are ensconced in the whole. It ends up being like a narrative or a landscape with lots of detail. You have to come up close to get the whole picture and experience.

"Not knowing Arabic," she says, "I don't know exactly what this artist is doing, but he is certainly using language to create a form. I'm sure there's a lot more going on, though. He seems to be questioning the notion of written language and the importance of that."

Art is always subject to interpretation, but Saar is on target, says Polly Nooter Roberts, an African art scholar who co-curated the exhibition with Christine Mullen Kreamer of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. "The artist is Nubian," she says of Hassan, whose family relocated to Cairo in 1902, when their homeland was destroyed by the construction of the Aswan Dam. "He comes from the tradition of Meroitic script, which has not been fully deciphered." Although Arabic speakers find recognizable words in some of his paintings, she says, "he is playing with issues of legibility and questioning to what degree legibility is the key to knowledge."

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