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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

Visitors and numerous school and community groups watched Saar, 55, wielding a chainsaw, mallet and an array of chisels to free her figure from the block of wood. Gradually, the angular planks began to resemble a human form, the form took on the shape of a woman, and the woman assumed the characteristics of an individual. Saar continuously circled the work, hacking off large chunks here, smoothing rough edges there. After the carving was complete, she scooped out the figure's belly and began to sheathe the form in small patches of copper that she cut to conform to the body's shape, nailing them down along their edges to create a continuous, quilted skin.

During the '80s and early '90s, when Saar lived in New York, she scavenged for old, stamped ceiling tin to cover her sculptures. She was intrigued by the history embedded in the material, in its former life sheltering a household.

"I liked that it was really hard and that it had a resistance to me trying to make it do what I wanted it to do. I liked that it had this patterning that related to keloiding and scarification, and that it was decorative on one hand, but it was also dirty and rusty and kind of raw. Also that it was this kind of armor."

Ceiling tin has become less available, so is using copper for that cladding, which, in "Foison," is not entirely protective. "I'm actually tearing this sort of skin, this thing that keeps the outside from coming in. And by pulling it open, it's allowing the inside to come out. It's opening the door between those two worlds."

Saar assembled the diorama in the figure's abdomen and sprayed the form's slightly wrinkled skin with a jade green patina. The warm tones of the copper gleamed through, and the newly animate figure suddenly appeared weathered, experienced. Even in the modest selection of her works at Lux, Saar's impressive range and resourcefulness with materials came through. In addition to pieces cast in bronze, there was a fiberglass figure coated in coal dust, a carved wood form dimpled with chisel marks and rubbed with graphite, faces carved in old baseball bats and a head carved in wood with a shimmering skin of gold leaf.

"All of the surfaces want to be touched," she said. "They want to be understood physically." At the same time, "they create a barrier."

That push-pull duality of immediacy and distance plays out in the figures' eyes as well, which, like those in "Foison," tend to be blank.

"You can observe them but they're not going to return your gaze. They're not going to engage you in any way." They stand like sideshow figures or slaves, people on display to be observed or sold. Some do directly address the viewer, "but for the most part they're creating this veil between them and you. They're in this whole other place spiritually or psychologically, but they're not present. Only their body is present."

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