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California Art Review's Rachel Denniston writes about Alison Saar's exhibition at the Benton

Artist Alison Saar’s world is one you’d welcome getting lost in. Interweaving notions of Blackness, womanhood, and a sense of mythic power and protection derived from mystical life forces and archetypal deities, her world is a place where the sacred and profane co-exist in the everyday. It is a place where gods and goddesses preside over the rivers and land and fire and air and aether and if we are lucky, just may bestow blessings upon us. 

Hers is a world where traditional notions of femininity are turned on their head. It is a place where our most fragile aspects of womanhood shape-shift into beacons of strength and a distinctly feminine power: a place where what once imprisoned us, makes us beautiful, and what makes us vulnerable, brings us strength. The real genius in Saar’s work lies in her alchemical ability to transform anything—in distilling injustice into beauty and trauma into power, Saar’s work most remarkably offers women (and more profoundly, Black women) a lesson in taking their power back. 

Saar’s exploration of the critical intersection of race, gender, and materiality is examined in a newly released publication, Alison Saar: of Aether and Earthe, coinciding with the largest museum survey of her work yet, currently installed at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena and Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College in Claremont.

Consisting of sculpture, paintings, and prints made from 1982 to 2020 and rooted in an overarching theme of the elements of earth, air, fire, water, and aether, the exhibition was organized by curators Rebecca McGrew and Irene Tsatsos at the Benton Museum of Art and Armory Center for the Arts, respectively, in collaboration with the artist. The works at the Armory correspond to the elements of fire, air, and aether, while the works presented at the Benton emphasize grounded, earthly, and watery qualities.

Like so many others during the pandemic, this exhibition remains closed with both museums awaiting state guidelines for instructions on re-opening. What can’t help but be a let down for many of Saar’s fans is assuaged by the fact that the coinciding publication has just been released, which, surprisingly, is almost as remarkable as the exhibition itself. 

Alison Saar: of Aether and Earthe, published with support from Fellows of Contemporary Art (FOCA), offers an intimate look into Saar’s life and work, tracing the themes central to her art and interests, as well as aspects of her upbringing in various parts of California during one of the most exciting periods in the history of art. 

Featuring an insightful essay by Rebecca McGrew exploring central themes in Saar’s professional trajectory, a conversation between Irene Tsatsos and Saar, herself, relating to her artistic practice and the influence of the mythologies of Africa, the African diaspora, and the West, an essay by Christina Sharpe about Saar’s use of found materials, as well as an autobiographical timeline with rare archival photographs, this catalogue provides an incredibly comprehensive, deep dive into the life and work of the artist. In a nod to Saar’s belief in the transformative power of words, this publication also includes previously unpublished poems by Camille T. Dungy, Harryette Mullen, and Evie Shockley, all of whom have worked with Saar in the past.

The daughter of celebrated artists Richard and Betye Saar, Saar grew up in Laurel Canyon, entrenched in the California art scene as early as the 60’s and 70’s. As illuminated in the catalogue, her upbringing proved incredibly influential on her work. Saar recounts how her interest in repurposing cast-off materials was inspired by visits to the Watts Towers as a child and how her interest in materiality and sculpture was in part due to watching her father work in his art conservation studio while growing up.

Saar notes, “[In his conservation studio, I was] suddenly allowed to touch objects that had been long admired from outside the protective glass of museums and galleries. I realized there was an exchange that occurred while holding a sculpture that was missed with a visual viewing (…) I thus began to teach myself how to carve with tools borrowed from my father’s studio. I was inspired by artists who created art to express a vision or to communicate spirit. The process of carving, coarsely cutting with a chainsaw, then refining features with a mallet and chisel, is often a give and take with the wood that seems to have its own will as to what will eventually emerge. I learned not to force a specific vision so much as to allow the figures to emerge and become themselves… In my sculpture the materials are essential to the power of the work. I often seek out used materials that have potency in either their alchemic properties or their history of use in prior lives.” 

Saar earned a dual degree in studio art and art history from Scripps College in 1978 before receiving her MFA from Otis College of Art and Design in 1981. At Scripps, Saar was mentored by the famed art historian and curator Dr. Samella Lewis and even went on to help launch the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection many years later.

One of the most striking works in the catalogue, Sapphire (1985) depicts the bust of a nude female who challenges the viewer to interact with her body by opening her chest, only for the viewer to discover that the hidden cavity reveals an assemblage of talismans and charms. As McGrew points out in her essay, the cavity alludes to Central African Bakongo nkisi objects which serve as charms used to mystically attack slaveholders and other enemies. Other sculptures like Sea of Nectar (2008) and Via Lactea (2013) depict white breastmilk flowing out and down from Black, female bodies like branches, rooting into the earth as if a grounding and sustaining life force.

In subverting the standard, idealized vision of womanhood that we are all too familiar with, Saar’s life-size figures offer a reclamation of the Black female experience, complete with a full rendering of its everyday, inherent magic and beauty, as well as a rootedness to a certain archetypal power that exists beyond the physical plane.

For as many empowered female figures present in the catalogue, however, there are equal numbers un-empowered: standing power-less, frozen, and bound. Examples of this include Voluptuous Mummy (1982) and Shorn (2013), depicting a mummified figure and female with her feet bound by what appears to have been her hair. Her upside down, hanging figures like En Pointe (2011) and Blonde Dreams (1997), are, according to Saar, “giving up aspects of themselves to fit into a more Western or successful bourgeois idea.”

Saar loves dualities: private and public, the seen and unseen, and it seems here she also plays with notions of agency and will power. In her juxtaposition of the contradicting ideas of reclaiming and renouncing power, Saar presents us with the question —how do you react to what life puts before you?

In her depiction of strong, Black women that stand before us like gods, perhaps what Saar presents with her work is not only a representation of what could be possible when reclaiming one’s power, but also a remembering of what has been lost or repressed in our society with regards to the sacredness of being both a woman and Black.

On the topic of addressing the injustices affecting the Black community, Saar says “I am always trying to take that anger, turn it around and somehow put that control back in our hands. That’s the cycle. What often starts out as anger eventually becomes, for me, not so much a healing but a way to look at what is happening as survivable, the idea that we can somehow push past the difficulties.”

The exhibition, Alison Saar: of Aether and Earthe, has been extended through May 16, 2021, however in the meantime, you’ll want to pour over every word in this catalogue.