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Alison Saar gives her sculptures an inner life

The artist creates openings in her figures that she fills with objects that convey history and tradition, as well as her personal experiences.

March 26, 2011|By Leah Ollman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Artist Alison Saar of Los Angeles with an exhibition of some of her work at the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, Calif., where she is an artist in residence.
Artist Alison Saar of Los Angeles with an exhibition of some of her work at… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Encinitas, Calif. — On opening night of Alison Saar's exhibition and residency at the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, sculptures stood on the floor and on pedestals, hung from the ceiling and were mounted on the wall, much like any of her gallery installations. But in one corner lay a dozen planks of Douglas fir, laminated into a solid block and held together by furniture clamps.

By the end of Saar's monthlong working retreat, which concludeded last week, that lumber had come to life, and in place of the artist's materials and a cartful of tools stood a figure of compelling presence: a woman, slightly larger than life-size, carved in wood and clad in patches of copper. Her hands pull back flaps of metallic skin from over her abdomen, revealing a dark blue cavity — rib cage, womb — filled with cotton bolls on slender stems and a fluttering of moths, all cast in bronze.

"Foison," titled after an archaic term meaning plenty or abundance, emerged out of a combination of the artist's longstanding and newer interests.

"The works I'm doing now hark back to my really early work, from right out of grad school," Saar explained, "full-size figures, with doors that would open up or breasts that would open. They were more following African traditions, like the Nkisi, having cavities with objects embedded in them, as opposed to these being very Western-based, using anatomical drawings as a springboard."

Reproductions of several such anatomical images were taped to the wall of the gallery-workspace at Lux. Beautifully rendered engravings from the 17th and 18th centuries, they depicted men and women of vivid sensuality peeling away portions of their skin to expose the muscles, ligaments and organs beneath. Nearby hung the collaged paintings that Saar used as starting points for "Foison" and its companion piece, "Fallow," a sculpture-in-progress at her home studio in Laurel Canyon. Both of the works on paper were shown last fall at Saar's gallery, L.A. Louver. In "Fallow," the female figure opens her chest to reveal a deer nestled among thorny stems. Both of the women are muses of a sort, "figures embodying emotional states, figures that become verbs."

Saar earned her bachelor's from Scripps College and her MFA at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) and has been named a distinguished alumna at both institutions. In addition to a steady slate of shows over the last 20 years, she has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and numerous public art commissions. In the fall of 2012, the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis will host an extensive exhibition of her work.

Saar draws upon history, myth and spiritual traditions in her work, often as they resonate with her personal experience. She twines the metaphorical and literal tightly around each other. The cotton in "Foison," for instance, refers to production, flowering and fertility, she said, but it's also a striking reminder of African American history and the crops that relied upon institutionalized slavery. The image of cultivation contrasts with the thistles and thorns, the "raw, more savage state" of "Fallow."

"That goes back to the duality in myself," said Saar, gracious and understated, her silver-streaked waves pulled back into short pigtails, "seeing myself as the civilized self and the uncivilized self, the wild self and the controlled, contained, well-behaved self. It plays into those two polar worlds."

Dualities invigorate Saar's work: strength and vulnerability, freedom and oppression, sanity and madness, humor and despair. The opposing forces don't reconcile harmoniously as much as they coexist in a state of vibrant friction. Many of her sculpted figures are bound, carry impossible loads on their heads or trail an inordinate amount of baggage. Some hang by their feet — "inverted lynchings," she calls them — symbolic of restraint and victimization, imposed from without as well as from within. The burdens of history and expectation are made palpable; the personal and political converge.

"I think being biracial definitely has a big play in my interest in that or my experience with that — never belonging in either world, always being considered some sort of other."

Saar's mother, artist Betye Saar, is African American. Her late father, Richard Saar, an art conservator, was white. She grew up in Laurel Canyon, not far from where she now lives. She claims multiple artistic heritages, basing works on European odalisques, Greek statuary, African tribal sculpture and spiritually charged ritual objects. Deeply informed and emotionally dense, tough as well as lyrical, poignant and often punning, her work is also accessible. Attendance during the public hours of Saar's residency was triple the normal numbers, said Lux director Reesey Shaw, in large part because of the work's broad and deep appeal.

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