New York

Lezley Saar

David Beitzel Gallery

The nightmarishly fascinating thing about race is that it’s at once real and unreal, social fact and anthropological nonentity. In the US, of course, the issue of race is everywhere, and yet the art world generally fails to reflect that fact. So it is perhaps natural that Lezley Saar, an artist of both African American and white ancestry, should feel compelled to take on questions of race and history in her mixed-media paintings. Certainly no one would accuse Saar of tiptoeing. Her show is entitled “Africans, Tragic Mulattos, Anomalies, and Rap,” and compared with the sort of subtlety found in the work of, say, David Hammons or Ellen Gallagher, Saar is a bull in the racial china shop.

Tale of the Tragic Mulatto, 1999, depicts the genealogical tree of two women presumably, given the title, of interracial descent. Antiquarian book covers form the painting’s support, and the various images and objects affixed to the painted branches suggest family roots in the slave passage: a textbook image of schooners; pictures of antebellum slave life; a rusty ladle marked “whites only.” The choice of materials and their placement seem to indicate how much “white blood” each woman has, and while there’s cleverness in the code, it’s a kind of history-class cleverness, too embedded in received ideas to be compelling as art. The materials all but shout, “We are charged with the tragic past!” and there isn’t much for the viewer to do but nod respectfully.

Yet Harriet Hemings, Slave Daughter of Thomas Jefferson, 1999, another bit of mixed-media family history, makes Tale of the Tragic Mulatto seem downright enigmatic: In the lower right-hand corner of the painting is a portrait of Jefferson; at the lower left is Sally Hemings; and linked to and rising above them is a larger portrait of their child Harriet Hemings. In case anyone missed the TV series and films and books devoted to this scandal, Saar explains the circumstances of the story in large handwriting around the images.

Things get slightly less didactic with Gangsta Boo, 1999, in which at least the cheap gold chains surrounding the central portrait of a black woman can articulate themselves without reference to slavery. Instead of books, the ground here is composed of album covers from the ’50s. The simpering white women in these slick images, Saar seems to say, are the immediate ancestors to the objects of rap’s sexism. But again, not content merely to suggest, Saar spells out her view of rap’s depravity with quoted bits of crass lyrics.

It’s when Saar runs the risk of simply painting a strange picture that she produces her most interesting work. Margarite Clark and Her Conjoined Twin, 1999, shows a light-skinned woman, her head and face covered with some sort of shawl but her breasts visible through a diaphanous top. The woman’s palms are turned outward at her sides in a gesture of defenselessness. Dangling from her by the head, which remains buried in the front of her stomach, is a baby, its hands held out to rhyme with those of its mother/twin. What does it mean? Thankfully, I have no idea.

Thad Ziolkowski