The Painful Beauty of Alison Saar's Stories


In the contemporary art world, dominated by conceptual and abstract art, it takes an artist of particular conviction and artistic chutzpah to concentrate exclusively on figurative work. I have been following the career of Los Angeles artist Alison Saar for more than two decades, and her current exhibition at Ben Maltz Gallery at the Otis College of Art and Design is an excellent example of such artistic courage.


Over the weekend, driving down Lincoln Boulevard towards the airport, I saw a life-size bronze sculpture of a woman lifting her skirt to hold the fruits that have fallen from the tree branches coming out of her head. This startling image, with Alison Saar's trademark mixture of mythology and racial and political issues, is a perfect introduction to her art.


The exhibition is dominated by life-size sculptures of women, who exist in a universe of their own. Some of them sport large antlers growing out of their heads. One of the figures, suspended upside down, hangs by a rope tied around her feet. Her antlers, reaching towards the ground, resemble the roots of a tree.


An artist of mixed racial upbringing, Alison Saar, never shies away from venturing into the minefield of racial and social issues that are ever present in our life. But to her credit, she doesn't preach or point a finger. Instead, she engages viewers through dramatic presentation of stories and characters, where everyday objects acquire painful symbolic meaning.


For example, the very fact that I cannot fully grasp the meaning of the sculpture showing a black woman balancing a white woman on top of her head, intrigues me to no end. I simply cannot get this image out of my head.


The elephant in the room, so to speak, is a surreal and disturbing sculpture of an old fashioned washbasin filled with a dark liquid, dangerously reminiscent of blood. Suspended above the basin is a clear glass sculpture of a woman's head, half full of the dark liquid. Confronting this artwork, the viewer becomes a witness to the complicated and difficult issues of racial identity in American history. It makes you hope for "symbolic atonement and even some measure of redemption." This powerful work in equal measures startled, repelled, and attracted me.


These days the works by Alison Saar can be found in the collections of major American museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and she also has work on public display in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. I hope that her bronze sculpture gracing the lawn outside Otis' Ben Maltz Gallery, will remain there for years to come, so that every time I pass Otis on my way to or from LAX I will be trying to resolve the mystery of this enigmatic artwork.

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.

Banner image: Alison Saar's (L) Rouse, 2012, wood, bronze, fiberglass and antler sheds; (R) En Pointe, 2010, Wood, bronze, graphite, and rope. Photos courtesy of Otis College of Design.

All images from Alison Saar's Still, at Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Design. Photos by Edward Goldman, unless otherwise indicated.