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March 8 - April 5, 2008 at L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice

by Mario Cutajar

"Hither", 2008, wood, copper,
tar & paint, 64 x 16 x 14".


“Bareroot", 2007, wood, bronze,
ceiling tin and tar, 17 x 81 x 48".

"Harriett Tubman Maquette",
2007, cast bronze,
22 1/4 x 24 1/2 x 13 1/2".
Edition 4 of 9.

"Coup", 2006, wood, wire, tin &
found objects, 52 x 168 x 52".

So much contemporary art is preoccupied with its own fleeting novelty--a sign perhaps that its authors are insufficiently acquainted with life’s vicissitudes--that a viewer accustomed to postmodernist frigidity may find the warmth that emanates from the work of Alison Saar somewhat discomfiting. Her work does occasionally slide down the slippery slope that leads to bathos, but whatever misgivings this occasions are exceeded by my admiration for her willingness to run that risk instead of taking cover behind hyperdefensive irony or pseudoscientific anthropology.

Alison Saar is the daughter of Betye Saar and sister of Lezley Saar. Their output shares some similarities, notably, a fondness for folksy assemblage or bricollage, and the thematic centrality of what might be loosely called female negritude. Actually, the Saar women are of mixed racial ancestry, and it seems to me that this racial heterogeneity has helped to endow them with a special relationship with the abject, a relationship that surfaces in both their predilection for cast-off materials and their markedly poetic sensibilities.

It is worth considering this idea in the intellectual context of Bulgarian/French structuralist Julia Kristeva. Her notion of the abject tends to be too easily reduced to an idealization of grossness, which is simplistic, and plays into a binary opposition that merely reiterates the shortcomings of conventional aestheticism. This binary logic is precisely what Kristeva’s conception of the abject confounds. The abject fascinates and horrifies by its indeterminacy, provoking in us a reactivation of the existential anxiety from the time when we were still in a process of separation from the engulfing presence of our mother and oscillating between the bliss and suffocation of fusion. Anything that crosses boundaries or threatens them can bring us up against the abject and its threat of negating all meaning and identity. The abject can be excrement or body fluids in general, a corpse, a crime, a betrayal, kitsch, refuse, a phobic object, and whatever threatens a fantasized racial purity or cultural integrity. Indeed, the abject is that unnamable horror (so obsessively dwelt on in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft) that the love for and fantasy of purity is always anxious to exterminate, and always unconsciously seeking and reproducing.

Because the abject is so closely tied to the maternal and the nutritional/excremental rhythms that modulate preverbal connections between mother and child, the threat of the abject is almost universally countered by misogynist rituals that try to contain female “impurity.” The alternative mode of containment is art. Kristeva, following in the psychoanalytic tradition, contrasts sublimation to repression. Art then can be seen as an attempt to redeem the abject by redirecting and distancing it by the use of visual symbols. This redemption coincides in the Saar oeuvre with a revalorization of folk art practices. In other words, with a revalorization of the culturally abject.

This revalorization is necessarily ambivalent. Even when “purified” as art, the abject remains capable of arousing revulsion as well as fascination. For me, this was particularly in evidence in a work that Allison Saar exhibited last year. Titled “Coup,” it shows the seated figure of an African American woman with a long braid of hair attached to a pile of old luggage behind her. In her hands, she holds a pair of scissors, implying that she is about to rid herself of her baggage. Many who commented on this work saw in it an impending act of self-deliverance. But one can also read it as an impending self-mutilation masked as defecation, a severance of all connection to the past as an extreme means of voiding the abject body. At that level, it reads not as self-empowerment but as something closer to suicide.

Your baggage, your shit, is who you are, who you hate, and what you have to negotiate with in order to find ground for your subjectivity. The fantasy of cutting yourself off from it can never be realized. It would amount to a psychic coup de grâce. It exists as a fantasized possibility only to protect you from the harrowing awareness of its impossibility. The beauty of “Coup” was that it superficially sets up this impossible fantasy even as it surreptitiously draws your attention to the aesthetic possibility of that pile of old suitcases. The artwork is an act of incorporation not disincarnation. The luggage left behind by others is rescued, reconfigured into a monumental aggregate, and attached to a wooden figure who threatens but will never deliver the threatened cut. It is in that contradiction, in the inversion of the very fantasy that the power of “Coup” resides.

In the current show, figures that Saar lays directly on the ground are even more expressive of the connection between the abject and the sculptural. For me, they are the most poignant of her pieces, all the more so because they are excremental by their very positioning. These colored women, one in repose with a giant ball of black, wiry hair attached to her head (“Cache”), the other in a fetal crouch with roots extending from her feet (“Bareroot,” a homophone for Beirut?) have surrendered completely to their physicality. In sleep and pain, the dumb, abject body rules. But in these works, the moment of total abjection is identical with the moment of transfiguration into dense sculptural bodies that exert a gravitational pull on whomever wanders near them and is captivated by their presence.

Saar here moves away from found materials and toward bronze figures that stand erect or are mounted on the wall. The title of her show is “Hither,” and the eponymous piece consists of a life-size sculpture of a standing woman spewing butterflies from her mouth. This evocation of the female life-giving power is echoed by figures that spew milk and pomegranates. In these works, the recuperation of the abject as poetic force seems more explicit and perhaps also more baroque. The potential pitfall is that in self-consciously positioning her work as poetic, Saar will end up making it cute. The potential payoff is the ability to integrate more complex mythological narratives in her work. The tension between these two possibilities is evidence that Saar’s work is still evolving.