New York

Alison Saar

Monique Knowlton Gallery

Alison Saar’s works have a certain kind of sweet elegance. The debate I have with them is whether or not they make the primitive, the out cast, coyly acceptable. The work deals generally with black men and women; in their physical isolation, each is sanctified as an icon. The figures are realized in a variety of media: wood (less crudely carved than one might expect), ceramic, cloth, and graphite and collage. I preferred the statues and reliefs; the added dimension made them less blatantly illustrative. Content becomes easy to swallow by reason of its suave theatricality, a kind of vernacular estheticization of the primitive that can become cute and dubiously humorous, as in Dog Gone, 1985, a sequined canine portrait in the style of a traditional Haitian voodoo flag.

In whatever terms I talk about these works I feel caught in cliches, but the work itself deals in the banal, combining cliches of content and form in an un-self-conscious, matter-of-fact way. The works have been called magical objects, and their “black magic” content (they could conceivably function as voodoo dolls or fetishes) has certainly been emphasized. But their shamanistic aspect seems as stereotypical as their decorative character, and even the figures seem to present us with a stereotyped view of “being black”; there is simply too much stale local color. Saar, who is black, is a serious student of black American culture and art history, yet these works suggest that she is in fact giving us a nostalgic look at something she has experienced only secondhand. Does her work signal that even “outcast” culture has become another iron in the historicist fire? Does it, too, spontaneously deconstruct into a set of linguistic mechanisms? Are those who are supposed to have an “original” relationship to reality forced to make copies of copies, because even they don’t believe that art has anything to do with ordinary experience?

Nonetheless, certain of Saar’s works manage to rise above the conditions of their making and seem to reintensify the horizon of emotional and visual “difference:” Sapphire, 1985, for example, a carved hollow bust of a woman filled with shards of glass and other found objects, reveals not simply the power of a female prototype, but the power of passion. It is an object that can survive its analysis by taking refuge in the unconscious.

Donald Kuspit