Los Angeles

Betye and Alison Saar

Wight Art Gallery

A collaborative installation here by mother and daughter Betye and Alison Saar, called The House of Gris Gris, 1990, was a collision of the natural and the fabricated—a hut with walls of twigs and moss sandwiched between industrial screening. The work marked out the potential power of art to deal with boundaries, to operate in an “in-between” position. The rest of the exhibition was like a prolonged odyssey or three-dimensional scrapbook. It was prefaced by an intimate, dimly lit foyer in which family photographs and childhood drawings of both artists were exhibited. To each side of this room, arched entrances—one marked by a painted silhouette of Betye, the other by one of Alison—established a united duality of bodies that was played out in each work as an ambivalent dis / re-placement of boundaries.

The strongest of the two artists’ assemblage works are those that appropriate and reconstitute a range of cultural signifiers, thwarting the viewer’s preconceived notions of race and gender and creating coherent alternative mythologies. Both Saars are multiracial—Betye is of African, Irish, and Native American descent, and Alison’s father is Anglo-American—and they appropriate seemingly indiscriminately from heritages other than their own. Thus in Betye Saar’s shrines—cross-cultural jumbles of found fragments, religious tourist relics, and architectural forms—the confusion of boundaries works to dismantle each specific cultural code into a generalized amalgam of overeager spiritualism. The weakest objects in this respect are Betye’s “Orientalist” assemblages, replete with exoticized miniature silk-lined interiors encasing tiny female figures and Buddhas. On the other hand, Betye’s collages made up of old photographs and bits of lace, feathers, fans, and other objects of feminine display are more successful because of the consistency with which “feminine” codes are employed.

Both artists utilize themes referencing female sexuality and domesticity, and deal with the fragmentary and reassembled, as they relate their works to the divided time and borrowed spaces of the domesticated female. Alison’s Sapphire, 1986, for example, probes femininity as a social construct by displacing the boundaries differentiating women as other. In this piece—a painted wooden torso of a black woman, arms behind her head, with full breasts that swing open on hinges to reveal a blood-red cavity lit by a red light bulb—she appropriates the primitivistic mode of crude wood-carving to represent female sexuality, disrupting the common conflation of the primitive with the feminine through parody. The sculpture embodies a clever mockery of the cliché image of woman as sexually primitive devourer, as the cavernous and unknowable other.

The younger artist plays with other boundaries as well, confusing the division of human and machine through her refiguring of urban detritus in her raw full-scale sculptures: bodies of wood covered with hammered metal sheets. These works confuse notions of interior and exterior with their pits and cavities, such that the inside of the body becomes viewable from outside. Alison also probes the boundaries between black and white in works such as Si j’étais blanc (If I were white, 1981), a small-scale wooden figure of a black man, his chest a gaping cavity revealing menacing shards of white glass projecting inward. While both artists are often successful in obscuring or reworking traditional oppositions—between the personal and the public, the secular and the sacred, the natural and the overtly technological—and while many of Betye Saar’s objects are beautiful in the precious, fetishistic way that Joseph Cornell’s boxes are, it is Alison Saar’s more pointed appropriation and refiguring of cultural codes and the consistent grounding of her program in contemporary ethnic and gender scenarios that gives her work a greater physical and ideological cohesiveness.

Amelia Jones