New York

Alison Saar and Lezley Saar

Phyllis Kind Gallery / David Beitzel Gallery

It is by complete coincidence, I’m told, that Alison and Lezley Saar exhibited simultaneously in SoHo galleries a block apart this season. Their work turns out to have connections that might well have been noticed without their being sisters, most obviously a concern with the iconography and rituals of African-American religion and spirituality. Both latch onto old but still-vital traditions with roots in Africa to grapple with the modern world.

This strategy is particularly clear in Alison Saar’s address of the culture of beauty. Her sculptures and drawings of female heads and figures all show a power of hair, a nightmare of hair, hair from hair to eternity. In the outsize wooden heads—modeled with a careful lack of polish, then painted or plated in tin—this hair comes as copses of dull and stubby wire, as sensuously welcoming as a steel brush. Things get caught in it: combs, predictably; keys, feasibly; but also scissors, padlocks, kitchen knives, horseshoes, toy trains, flatirons, monkey wrenches. The irons and perhaps the wrenches imply foiled attempts to straighten nappy locks, evoking the complicated attention to hair in African-American culture. Seeing the harsh strands that wind into the throat of Conked (all works 1997), though, I suspect a lot of women of other backgrounds would choke on the memory of struggling for that Breck Girl look.

In studding wooden figures with metal wire, Alison Saar may be extending the Kongo tradition of the nkondi or nkisi—sculpture invested with power by accretions of blades or nails. In the found objects, too, I suspect a bow to Ogún, the Yoruba god of iron who is honored with offerings of metal for, in Robert Farris Thompson’s words, his “power to cut”— a suitable succor in managing intractable hair. (Both of these African icons have African-American analogues.) This religious strain adds a sense of spiritual resource to the definite politic and the sad or withdrawn mood of the work, which is full of images of sightlessness and being weighed down or strung up. Meanwhile, the hair itself is too spikily vital to be completely a negative force; an energy principle, it makes over Samson for women.

More delicate and more cerebral, Lezley Saar’s wall pieces take old books as the grounds for somewhat surrealistic or magical-realist figure paintings reminiscent of, perhaps, an artist like Julio Galan, or of unschooled American painting of the last century. Some works, such as Vodun, 1996, comprise a single volume, their covers carved out to form a frame for the images within; more often, books are tiled together into a gridded but irregular plane. The work may also incorporate other stuff—photographs, fabric, a magnifying glass.

The accretion of found objects is an old strategy in certain kinds of traditional African-American art, and it of course appears in contemporary art for a variety of purposes. Lezley Saar’s motives include the simply visual, in that the books offer rich textures for the eye to enjoy. Those she uses in Gros Bon Ange, 1995, for example, are all similarly marbled, and their lacy swirls and faded palette create a gorgeous surface for her painting of an angel winged not with feathers but with transparent scales. She is also attuned, though, to the books’ connotations of age, their traces of use, their childhood aura (they may return us to libraries of long ago). Clearly, too, their role as dense concentrations of knowledge and history is as important to Saar as their objecthood. Her subjects reflect wide literary interests,running from the Haitian-African serpent gods Dambala and Ayida Wedo to Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and her images have their own stories to tell, often involving uncertainty of identity: the mulatto, black but also white; the angel, man but also insect. If there is a weakness in this work, in fact, it is that we look for a close relation between the content of the books—their titles are often left visible—and that of the paintings, and often do not find it. But this is only a minor distraction from an art of considerable imagination and suggestiveness.

David Frankel