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by Nancy Kay Turner

(Jan Baum Gallery, West Hollywood) Lezley Saar's poignant, narrative, mixed-media portraits embody Barbara Kruger's definition of art as "the ability, through visual (means). . .to objectify one's experience of the world: to show and tell, through a kind of eloquent shorthand, how it feels to be alive." The feelings Saar evokes are of pain, alienation and confusion. The subjects of her complex portraits are both historical and fictional characters --society's castoffs and freaks of nature--who are marginalized in a society that enjoys tormenting them.

The title of the mixed-media work Tiers of Art suggests a play on words which has two meanings. One reading is "Tears of Art", while "Tiers of Art" of course refers to the act of layering paint over other earlier images--whether photographic, drawn or painted. In this image, Saar situates the face of a black woman over several monochromatic landscapes that are glued to the canvas, creating an underlying grid not unlike a patchwork quilt. The woman seems to be crying what might be described as chocolate tears, though her face is expressionless. Saar, in an interview with David Hale, said she likes the idea of painting over thrift-store discarded paintings because the image underneath "might be the character's memory of a more refined past."

Floating or growing out of this mother’s forehead is a small black child with an unusually large head, praying and crying milk-white tears. The woman's mouth--her voice--is covered. This melancholy image, filled with many twists and turns, invites much speculation about its content. Is it political, personal, or both? Is it about the tragedy of young black men in this country? Is it about the silencing of the marginalized?

Saar's blending of symbol and allegory is reminiscent of Frida Kahlo's powerful and painful self-portraits, and also suggests Diane Arbus' confrontational and ultimately humane portraits of people "to whom," as Heidegger put it, "the dreadful has already happened." Saar's own experience as the mother of an autistic child prompted her to explore the territory of the human anomaly.

“Aloise Corbaz (diagnosis dementia
praecox),” acrylic/mixed media, 80 x
48”, 2000. Photo: Brian Forrest

“Anastocia-Escrava Martir Negra",
mixed media, 80 x 48 x 7", 1998.

“Ascension of a Lily-Skin",
mixed media, 86 x 40 x 5", 1997.

In Annie Jones Saar presents the real or imagined classic bearded lady associated with circus freak sideshows. Painted in the style of late-19th century primitive portraits, Annie Jones is portrayed in a very feminine blue, off-the-shoulder dress, holding a lock of hair in her right hand, and a purse in her left hand. She stares at the viewer candidly. Her beard and mustache seem as natural and as fitting as her necklace. In this image, one is struck by how comfortable and, well, normal the subject seems within herself.

In Aloise Corbez (diagnosis demantic praecox) there are underlying painted images of flowers (a traditional subject matter of still-life painting), layered onto the canvas. The large-scale face of Aloise Corbez is painted thinly over the flowers, revealing but muting all that goes on underneath. This nearly symmetrical composition has a stilted, hypnotic quality as the subject's expressionless eyes stare unseeingly ahead. Collaged over her face, splayed from her forehead down through her nose, is an organic shape like fingers--filled with old photographs and paintings of women ranging from primitive to realistic. This hints at many possibilities: multiple personalities, a gene pool of relatives, or voices in the head. This mesmerizing image is powerful because it is at once very direct and enormously complex.

These images are disturbing to their core. Like bad dreams, they are likely to stay with us after we wake up, capable of inspiring a sense of dread. If you feel the art world is filled with too much fast-food art that is gratifying but shallow and slick, Saar's very personal exploration of otherness, identity and culture will stick to your ribs. This work pulls you deep inside to grapple with issues of imperfection. In the cultural climate of Southern California, beauty and perfection are so sought after that these images are doubly affecting.