Los Angeles

Alison Saar

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

At the entrance to the museum, viewers were greeted to the exhibition by a sculpture of a larger-than-life black male figure hanging upside down. Executed in bronze and attached to the ceiling by a chain, Alison Saar’s Traveling Light, 1999, functions on one level as a bell, emitting a deep-toned chime when visitors pull a cord at the center of its back. But it is also a representation of a lynching, the violence of the act held at bay while the dignity of the figure shines through. The funereal yet heroic sculpture possesses a determined quality, a resistance to violation that seems to cast a spell over the space of the gallery.

Another work, Tree Souls, 1994 (first shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1996) evokes the Shinto belief that all trees are sacred. Towering sixteen feet above the viewer, the totemic piece, made from ceiba trees, comprises a pair of figures, one male, one female. While Saar’s use of wood seems to animate the figures, this effect is counteracted by restrictive copper sheets the artist has laid over the trees. At the base, a matted knot of roots entwines the figures permanently, functioning as either a form of entrapment or a sign of eternal unity. Located in the same area of the gallery is Stone Souls, 1995, a work consisting of two boulder-shaped pieces. A closer look reveals each to be a naked human figure, knees hunched up under their chins, Standing on either side of Tree Souls, they could be construed as guardians of the archetypal pair—or are they assuming this stance as a form of self-protection? Such ambiguities give Saar’s recent work its power, allowing interpretation to remain elusive despite the stark quality of the forms.

Each of the five works in the show reverberates with art-historical and folk references, Like Traveling Light, Topsy Turvey, 1999, is suspended from the ceiling, but shares none of its stateliness and monumentality. The piece references dolls made of two torsos stitched together at their centers. When you held the doll a certain way, it was a white doll; turned the other way, it became a black one. In Saar’s version, the “doll” no longer consists of two torsos but maintains a dual coloration: From the legs down, she’s white; from the waist up, black Because the three-and-a-half-foot figure dangles from her feet, the white skirt she wears hangs down, hiding her face, though her dreadlocked hair is plainly visible. The artist deliberately forces visitors to become voyeurs by having them look up the doll’s dress to try for a glimpse of her face. One sees that her hands are clamped tightly over her eyes. Are we witnessing her fear and shame? Or ours? Saar’s exhibition is filled with strong, spare images that testify to the multitude of crises of identity at the end of the century.

Rosetta Brooks