Critics’ Picks

View of “Lezley Saar: Salon des Refusés,” 2017–2018.

Los Angeles

Lezley Saar

California African American Museum (CAAM)
600 State Drive, Exposition Park
October 25 - February 18

For most of the run of Lezley Saar’s jewel-box retrospective exhibition at this museum, a visitor could also see work by Saar’s sister, the sculptor Alison Saar, and mother, Betye Saar, a few paces away, in a separate, traveling group show. Indeed, the Saars are a formidable presence in Los Angeles—they’re the closest thing to an art dynasty we have—but as of yet, far less attention has been paid to Lezley Saar’s research-intensive and wildly speculative work. This installation seeks to amend that, bringing together four series for the first time under the winking title “Salon des Refusés.”

Unlike the original “Salon de Refusés” in 1863, none of the painted and collaged works here are rejects, but rather the people portrayed in them have been tossed aside and discounted by society. The artist invests in these individuals for their latent potentialities. Paintings from the series “Madwoman in the Attic/Madness and the Gaze,” 2004–12, explore, among other things, nineteenth-century fictional characters, many of whom are brown or black, who subvert societal restrictions on the behaviors of women of color via madness or mental disorders. In Bertha Rochester, 2012, the head of Charlotte Brontë’s famous “madwoman in the attic” is proposed as a free-floating tree of pain and despair, while surrounding keyhole photographs of clocks and stacked dollhouse furniture give one a sense of her isolated life. For the series “Monad,” 2014, the artist blends the organic and the cosmic—eyes float in the heavens, set within a carpet of stars—while the fictional women depicted throughout, with a few notable historical references, appear as explorers of the boundaries between science and the occult. Finally, “Gender Renaissance,” 2015–, investigates personages (including real individuals) who blurred gender lines prior to the emergence of transgender identity discourse. In all these cases, Saar looks to the past—lived and literary—so that we might see how to make the present a more welcoming place for the strange and the brave.