Los Angeles

View of “Alison Saar,” 2018. Photo: Jeff McLane.

View of “Alison Saar,” 2018. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Alison Saar

L.A. Louver

View of “Alison Saar,” 2018. Photo: Jeff McLane.

For Alison Saar’s most recent show at L.A. Louver, “Topsy Turvy,” she took as her muse the character of Topsy from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, recasting the slave girl of the Civil War–era novel as a figure for our time. The “wooly hair . . . braided in sundry little tails” remained, but here became an emblem of implacable defiance. In ten new sculptures and six related paintings on variegated supports pieced together from indigo-dyed seed sacks, vintage linens, denim, and one found trunk, Saar rendered Topsy with dark and sometimes patinated skin (the sculptures comprise admixtures of ingredients including wood, tar, steel, ceiling tin, wire, acrylic paint, and gold leaf), and encircled her head with an orb of cotton puffs extending from branches that seem to sprout from the tips of twisted locks. High Cotton (study), 2017, a painting of a deep-blue field from which five vengeful women emerge, reminded one of the pragmatism behind this accessory; the makeshift vegetal crowns are a form of camouflage, making it possible to hide in the fields. Saar granted the crowns the Medusa-like power of threatening visibility.

In a related phalanx of freestanding sculptures respectively titled Rice, Cotton, Indigo, Sugar, and Tobacco (all 2018), each figure—smaller than life-size but no less imposing—bore as a handheld weapon the tool-cum-attribute of her servitude (sickle, bale hook, hoe, machete, and knife). A lighter-skinned, presumably house-kept Topsy in White Guise (study), 2017, brandished a clothes iron. These sculptural embodiments concretize self-possession and self-determination, themes that are further explored in Jubilee (study), and Jubilee, both 2018. The former is a painting on a dark-crimson textile depicting a naked woman cutting bundles of hair from her own head with a sickle. The latter is an erect wooden sculpture of the same, the bowed weapon arcing around her neck in a state of temporary repose that nevertheless implies impending action, poised as she is to unfurl her arm and its prosthesis to rid herself of the rest of the bound plaits. The transmutation of the protagonist from two to three dimensions suggests incipient mobility, vitality, and energy.

That Saar also crosses the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts—which details a hero’s struggle to reclaim his ancestral throne by retrieving a golden fleece—admits an effort toward authorial control that may implicate Topsy in a kind of self-portraiture. Such a theory is not intended to pose a literal correlation between Saar and these totems, but to posit the works as projective sites for Saar’s agency. One such reinterpretation of the myth, Topsy and the Golden Fleece, 2017, was positioned in the entryway, framed by the architecture and in turn framing the visual vignettes beyond. The sculpted Topsy clutches not the fleece of the golden ram but a scalp of shimmering gold. A companion painting, Topsy and the Golden Fleece (study), 2017, showed Topsy clad in a white shift, standing in front of another indigo plane, holding the flaxen fleece. Gorgeous and inky, the picture is punctuated by a gruesome sliver of bright red, a cut through the fleece that might also be a recession into a vaginal space. A recumbent Venus with a gently swollen belly rested nearby on a tall plinth in Bitter Crop, 2018, the most recent work in the show. The forceful horizontality of her pose is interrupted by the vertical stems of cotton puffs held aloft by bunches of hair. She presided over the encampment of armed women like a sentinel, a contemporary deity encircled by a fierce constellation.

Suzanne Hudson