Los Angeles

Alison Saar

Jan Baum Gallery

Alison Saar’s often ironic icons—life-size wood and metal figures, paintings on scraps of tin and guitar backs, and constructions called “potions”—are like models for sacred objects with the power to hurt or cure. These charms take their places as ritual fetishes in Saar’s prototypical folk religion—an amalgam of voodoo, feminism, Catholicism, childhood superstition, and African and Cuban lore. To this brew Saar adds her humor, urban sensibility, and pursuit of the ascension of the human spirit.

Cigarette fumes, coffee steam, and spirals are three images Saar employs to evoke the struggle to rise. Java Zombie, 1988, is a monoprint that combines images of a woman in an orange dress, a wrought-iron grill with a climbing vine design, an upward spiral, and a cup of coffee with wavy lines of steam floating above it. Here coffee appears in a dual role as both sacrament and addiction, with the power to temporarily warm and quicken. The show contains two pieces titled Lazarus, both 1988. One is a monoprint and the other a pale-peach wooden figure with fake rubies that look like bits of bike reflector pressed into its flesh. The figure stands atop what might be a rusted jewelry box, one hand gripping a green walking stick, the other hand’s tin palm open, Buddhalike.

Saar often uses commonplace found materials such as sticks, string, nails, plastic flowers, doors, and hair. These previously owned things have an acquired magnetism that makes them suitable as basic ingredients in recipes for conjuring. Mineral colors predominate: cobalt blues, golds, iron greens, earth tones. Saar also uses lots of red, usually to celebrate the vitality of desire rather than to castigate the ways of sin: it’s the true heart’s red, not Satan’s.

The works shown have been made with an emphasis on their means of construction: seams and layers show. Many of the life-size figures sport what look like tin patches, and nail heads are visible on the surface of several pieces. The sculptural works often look wrapped or bandaged. Briar Patch, 1988, is a blue-black female figure a little larger than an infant. She lies on her side, mummified in bandagelike wrapping and barbed wire. Like the majority of Saar’s female figures, she’s as voluptuous as a fertility symbol—so much so she looks as though she might burst her swaddling. Is she a martyred saint? Just a tangled-up woman? Or a physical reminder of how we’re all trussed up by our history and assumptions? The figure has been put together piecemeal, from other people’s castoffs, and therein lies some of its durability and strength, as well as its visual appeal.

Saar also exhibits a fascination with the literal “heart” of things. In Diva, 1988, a blue female bust has a window above one of her breasts that opens to reveal a tiny metal parakeet trapped behind smeared glass. Love Potion #1, An Iron Clad Hex for Marriage, 1988, has a green lady in a patterned tin dress whose left breast opens to reveal a knot of rusted nails. If Saar is constructing a model of a minireligion, it’s a belief system based not on supplication but on a wry, ambitious faith centered around gaining control over one’s destiny. This is art that offers itself to the viewer as a kind of totemic diagram for self-transformation.

Amy Gerstler