Alison Saar, the Alchemist

The following essay is excerpted from the catalogue Alison Saar: Of Aether and Earthe, published by the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College to coincide with the exhibition of the same name at the Benton Museum and Armory Center for the Arts (145 N Raymond Ave, Pasadena, Calif.), opening in 2021.

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I. Material

Generally, I have to experience everything through my hands.

Alison Saar

                        The poetics of Saar’s expression is rooted in her vocabulary of mediums.

                                                                                    —Linda Tesner

Charcoal
Chalk
Acrylic
Seed sacks
Linens
Ceiling tin
Nails
Cotton
Wire
Wood
Copper
Dirt
Antler sheds
Wild roots
Sugar sacks
Glass
Water
Quilts
Handkerchiefs
Washboards
Pails
Trunks
Water
Driftwood
Branches
Bronze
Tar

Also:
Yoruba religion
Greek mythology
Nkisi figures
Words
History
Fables

Alison Saar is a theorist of material; material is her praxis. By which I mean, Saar is interested in idea and material, curious about chalk, charcoal, tin, sugar sacks, seed sacks, washboards, cotton, bronze. She is attentive to their lives, the stories they tell, their accretion of detail and meaning. “It’s the ideas that determine my materials,” Saar says. Saar is a sculptor, painter, and printmaker who has “studied African, Haitian, Afro-Cuban and other black visual traditions and wrote a senior thesis on US black vernacular art.” Her work is often figurative, and it is described as “public facing.” Saar makes work that engages the body and the spirit, work that she hopes audiences will find a way to connect with. Her sculptures, sometimes incorporating antler sheds and wild roots, extend outward to the viewer, like a branch or a hand. Saar says, “I wanted to make art that told a story, that would engage people. I wanted them to be moved by my work, whether it was specifically what my intentions were or not did not matter. I wanted them to be drawn in and affected by my sculpture.”

Alison Saar, “50 Proof” (2012), glass, copper, rubber, steel, soap, cotton, textiles, enamel basin, colored water, 63 x 27 x 20 inches (Private Collection)

I have long been an admirer of Saar, since I first saw images of her work in a graduate seminar taught by the poet, scholar, and sometimes Saar collaborator Harryette Mullen. And then I saw her sculptures in person at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Soho, New York, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s. This phrase — in person — is fully meant, because Saar’s works take on an uncanny corporeality. Her figures are present as beings, as gods, perhaps, but most certainly as presences. As I entered the gallery, I was arrested by the figure that greeted me just inside the door. That figure was a woman, and I believe the sculpture was “Strange Fruit” (1995, tin alloy, wood, dirt, found objects, rope, and paint). The sculpture is of a woman who has perhaps been lynched. As the figure was installed, she was hanging upside down, tied at the ankles, and suspended by a long rope. In my memory, one could pull that rope and thus cause the hanging woman to be momentarily lifted into the air. That act, whether it was shadow (by which I mean existing only in my memory) or real implicates the viewer. I think here of Saidiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts.” Of that Venus, a young African girl, hung from her feet, beaten, violated, and murdered in Middle Passage, Hartman writes: “We stumble upon her in exorbitant circumstances that yield no picture of the everyday life, no pathway to her thoughts, no glimpse of the vulnerability of her face or of what looking at such a face might demand.” When we stumble upon Saar’s Venus, we either arrive after the event of her possible hanging and murder (?) or in media res: Who pulls that rope? Who doesn’t? Who is the perpetrator? Who is implicated and how? Saar’s “Strange Fruit” demands our attention, demands that we look at her face.

Alison Saar, “Strange Fruit” (1995), tin alloy, wood, dirt, found objects, rope, paint, 76 x 21 x 14 inches (Collection of Baltimore Museum of Art, Contemporary Art Endowment Fund)

It was stunning. Saar’s hung woman was yet so alive, so vulnerable — she was naked, her neck was turned to one side, her head on her shoulder, an often repeated gesture in Saar’s work. Is her neck broken? Is she resting? Is she mournful? Wistful? Yes, perhaps, wistful. The hanged figure is leaning, in a way that looks self-protective, her hands, insufficient to the task, cover her breasts and her pubis. Her lips are painted red, her carved wooden body is covered in ceiling tin. The raised decorative tin appears as shield and accretion, as armament, ornament, and scar.

The figure gestures toward Venus Pudica but turned upside down. But, if she is that Venus, then she is that Venus hung for her power, and what may look like serenity is nevertheless a sign of her power. And then there was “Hoe” (1995, hoe, wood, plaster, tin) — a smaller sculpture of a figure of a woman built up from a rusted hoe. Another iteration, perhaps, of the Venus Pudica, this woman is right-side up. Her lips are also red; she, too, is naked, and she seems less to be covering herself from the prying gaze than pleasing herself. Her head is tilted back, resting against the gallery wall, one hand cups a breast, one hand is between her legs. This Venus seems caught in pleasure and not in the aftermath of attack. A hoe is an instrument of seemingly familiar use, but it is also, as this sculpture would show us, recondite. The blade that her feet subside into — or grow out of — is an implement and a weapon, a good and useful implement and weapon. A tool for digging the earth, for growing the earth, for awakening the earth, but also, perhaps, for self-defense and a refusal of misnaming.

These figures are powerfully evocative, painful, and beautiful, and they visually and physically reference histories of race/sex/violence, what one understands pleasure to be, and where one understands violence and pleasure to land. I think that, together, these sculptures get at the varied and multiple conditions of Black women, which is a recurrent theme in Saar’s great and complicated project.

To sit with Saar’s work is to sit with its weight, force, and beauty — its presence. It is to sit in a space/time somewhere between or among idea, substance, experience, and the haptic that Saar describes as the need to experience everything through her hands. Saar works in tactility, in feeling and mass.

More nouns, verbs, adjectives, many of them titles of Saar’s sculptures and prints that appear in this exhibition:

Breach                                                 Life

Conked                                                Weight

Brood                                                  Interior

Deluge                                                Exterior

Rouse                                                  Figure

Shorn                                                  Ground

Undertow                                            Aether

Tactility                                              Earthe

Undone

This list enumerates the titles and themes of sculptures and prints in the exhibition Of Aether and Earthe. Many of these words, like shorn and conked, have to do with hair but not only hair. Shorn is most often applied to the removal of sheep’s wool and also to the process of cutting the hair of people of African descent, which has been likened to wool. Then there is conked, which means to arrive at the end of, as in conked out, but also to break the structure of and therefore to make something anew, as in congoleen — a straightener for Black hair.

Often these titles have to do with bodies-human, animal, water, land, air-and what lies between them and in their midst, the ways that these animate and inanimate bodies are confounded, mixed up, fenced off. There are also titles, like “Deluge” (2016), “Undertow” (2004), and “Brood” (2008), that are concerned with what bodies withstand, the transformative, transsubstantive forces that make and undo them.

Alison Saar, “Undertow” (2004), wood, wire, bottles, copper, 45 x 12 x 9 inches (Collection of Lois and Richard Neiter)

The spaces between the nouns and the verbs and the adjectives of this list are part the spiritual ingredients that Saar works with, that complexity of meaning and signification. The materials, Saar tells us, have spirit and life and memory, they are, as Sarah Hanley writes, “historically charged, richly tactile materials.” What Saar does with the matter at her hand is like what Toni Morrison does with language. Both work in Black vernaculars.

In Morrison’s essay “Home,” she writes about English and her desire to signify racial specificity minus the detritus of racism. Morrison undertook that hard work, with her materials — language — for the entirety of her career as an editor and writer. She describes with precision that “prison house” of raced language and tells us that, in relation to the work of racist racial construction, “eliminating the potency of racist constructs in language is the work [she] can do.”

Alison Saar, “Deluge” (2016), wood, ceiling tin, wire, cast iron, 68 x 64 x 70 inches (Collection of J. Michael Bewley)

The elements of Saar’s work (weight, interior, exterior, Yoruba religion, myth, fable, glass, branch) signify racial specificity minus the detritus of racism. Her copper, sugar sacks, glass, nails, washboards, wool, and wild roots are the means by which she experiences and then makes worlds, and then, through her, we experience the world. Saar speaks often about using found and salvaged objects in her work, as in vintage fabrics collected from flea market, and she thinks about holding the found object’s history, its memory of life and its wisdom. There is, she tells us, a spirit in certain materials. Saar works from the long history and present in the United States of antiblack violence. But Saar does not lodge us in violence and leave us there.

Saar salvages these materials, saves and salves them, holds ideas, matter, and life in her hands and translates them to us — her audience.

II. Tool

1. (a) “Any instrument of manual operation” (Johnson); a mechanical implement for working upon something, as by cutting, striking, rubbing, or other process, in any manual art or industry; usually, one held in and operated directly by the hand (or fixed in position, as in a lathe), but also including certain simple machines, as the lathe; sometimes extended to simple instruments of other kinds

(b) A weapon of war, esp. a sword. archaic.

2. figurative (a) Anything used in the manner of a tool; a thing (concrete or abstract) with which some operation is performed; a means of effecting something; an instrument.

—Oxford English Dictionary

The first tool in Alison Saar’s repertoire is the hand: “that laying on the hands of it” and her need to experience everything through her hands.

When I had the great pleasure of meeting Saar in October 2019, in Los Angeles, she took me to her studio. On the way there, we passed trees that had been cut down and then cut further into logs. Saar contemplated stopping or returning for them, then decided that the length was wrong, they’d been cut too short. She spoke of salvaging when she lived in New York City, transporting tin ceiling tiles and other found and saved objects on the subway, dragging all of this home. An eye for salvage, for use/fulness and beauty. Beauty in the quotidian and its constitutive salvage that often makes up so much of Black life. What a gift it is for us to be saved by Saar’s hand, to be salvaged.

When I taught in a small college and lived in Geneva, New York, I started buying racist memorabilia in order to liberate those pieces from their white collectors who had so imagined and made them. I think, often, of those objects that I purchased in flea markets and estate auctions between Ithaca, Geneva, Canandaigua, and other cities, towns, and hamlets in upstate New York. One handmade object in particular astounded me. I bought it in Ithaca. It was a figure made from a chicken wishbone, painted black, with a face carved into the head of the furcula and wearing a dress made from pieces of chamois. A piece of paper was glued to its front; and written in script was the following rhyme: “Once I was a chicken bone and dwelt inside a hen, now I am a little slave, made to wipe your pen.”

Alison Saar, “Mammy Machine”

Of course, Alison Saar’s mother, artist Bettye Saar, makes brilliant use of such material — think of the “Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972, wood, cotton, plastic, metal, acrylic, printer paper, and fabric). Alison Saar puts many of these same ingredients to a different kind of undoing use, not as racist memorabilia but as the wood, cotton, and acrylic itself. I am struck by some of the uses of objects in the work that Saar is currently making — the cast-iron frying pans of different sizes and weights, the age of them and how they’ve been tended to or simply used.

At Saar’s studio, I ask about her tools. I want to see what she uses to chisel the wood, to make her magnificent sculptures, to make the holes in the wood for the hair to sprout, and the awl that she uses to punch holes in the tin used to adorn the sculptures. Saar shows me the stack of tin ceiling tiles, the nails that will be hair, a spray can of liquid rubber used to coat the nails and make them matte black. She also shows me a box of instruments. I touch them one by one. There is a beautiful and functional mallet. Tactile. Lighter than I expected. Made by the Wood Is Good Co., this is a quiet mallet, and it is unbreakable. There is a beautiful sapphire-blue-handled awl, a fern-green-handled chisel. The mallets and the chisels were given to Saar by her father Richard, in her last year in graduate school. Richard Saar, was a ceramic artist. “He also had a business for conserving art where Alison Saar worked for many years, intimately learning techniques and styles by restoring works of art ranging from ancient Chinese frescos to African sculpture.”

A poet with chronic pain from sitting and writing asks a painter and photographer what effect doing her work has had on her body. The painter replies that one side of her body is lifted higher than the other. There is the work, and then there is the relation between the work and the body doing the work. Saar moves with a kind of stillness. I look at Saar’s body, at her hands, and I think of the force required to do the work that she does, the flesh and muscle, tendon and sinew, sweat and blood that she works through and with. Perhaps the work has produced that stillness in her.

When is a body not just a body? When is it more than a body, less than a body?

I think of the tactility of the mallet, awl, and chisel and those implements in Saar’s hands, the transportation and transformation that in their use must occur in both the artist and the work. The body of the artist is changed by the tool and the work; that change itself enacts the kind of “tug between spirit and body” that is so present in Saar’s sculptural body of work.

Alison Saar, “Undone” (2012)

III. Life

Please approach with care these figures in black.
Regard with care the weight they bear,
                        the scars that mark their hearts.
Do you think you can handle these bodies of graphite & coal dust?
This color might rub off. A drop of this red liquid
                        could stain your skin.
This black powder could blow you sky high.
—Harryette Mullen

Saar has an ongoing collaboration with the poet Harryette Mullen. Their engagement, like Mullen’s poem, above, models care — as an antidote to violence.

I have walked past Saar’s Harriet Tubman (“Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial,” 2007, in Harlem, New York) many times. Walked past the front, the back, and all around it. Saar’s Tubman is headed South — not North — on one of her dangerous return trips to bring more fugitives from the slave states to comparatively freer states. Saar’s Tubman is in mid stride and on her billowing skirt are the soles of shoes (bringing up the homophone souls) and the faces of many of those Black people swept up, by, and with her, and moved, roots and all, to another space. She carries them/us with her as she heads back for more. Saar’s Tubman has her feet firmly planted on the earth, yet moving.

Alison Saar, “Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial” (2007), cast bronze, granite, 156 x 108 x 252 inches, 122nd and Frederick Douglass Avenue, New York

This movement is Tubman’s focus — pulling enslaved people away, pulling slavery out by its roots — carrying the people with her to some other place, to a space that Frederick Douglass revises from freedom to “comparative freedom.” Saar says, “I was really wanting to understand the spirit of this woman who went beyond all these boundaries and barriers to help other people, and that is such a rare thing. What I wanted was for people to come to this piece and really understand what was truly phenomenal about Tubman — that she was constantly sacrificing her own life help others.” Perhaps the patina, the roots pulled out but still attached, the landing in sole and soul attest to the structural strain of slavery and its afterlives and what is made in its knowledge. Tubman embodies care as shared risk.

Roots often appear often in Saar’s work. This speaks to me about Black life’s orientation and our straining toward liberation and connection. Saar’s work enters the present world and simultaneously imagines other adjacent pasts and future, sometimes horrific, sometimes fantastical, sometimes mythical, but always sensual or feeling worlds.

Let me return to salvage — a word with origins in maritime insurance, a word that traces its beginnings to the trade in kidnapped and enslaved Africans and the Middle Passage. I think here of salvage of thought, the thoughts saved from a wreckage, as well as those things thrown up by the sea or washed up on a beach or a riverbank: clothing, pails, furniture, wood chests and trunks, all those things left behind and revealed when the flood waters recede. From “waste material,” Saar salvages the uncanny presence of something marvelous that is in the wrong place.

Saar’s Backwater Blues series (2014) speaks to the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 and to Hurricane Katrina, which caused catastrophic damage to Louisiana and Florida in 2005. “Breach” (2016) appears as part of that series and it repeats — finding form as both installation and painting. In each iteration, a naked woman is on a raft; she holds a pole in one hand and on her head are all of her possessions, saved, salvaged. Breach means an act of breaking or failing to observe a law, agreement, or code of conduct; to make a gap in and break through (a wall, barrier, or defense); archaic, a person’s buttocks. I cannot help but surface the homophone — breech: “relating to or denoting presentation of a fetus in which the buttocks, rump, or legs are nearest the cervix and emerge first at birth.”

Alison Saar, “Breach” (2016), wood, ceiling tin, found trunks, washtubs, other objects, 155 x 60 x 51 inches (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

I turn to breach as it appears in those homophonic soundings and in two different iterations, and to the buttocks. While the buttocks are a site of racist speculation about Black people — Black women in particular — Saar’s naked figures inhabit the multiple descriptions of buttocks in Black aesthetics — descriptions of strength, balance, and beauty. In the interview between Irene Tsatsos and Alison Saar in this volume, we read: “Maddy [Saar’s daughter] came by the studio the other day. I said, ‘I think her butt’s too big.’ She said, ‘Mom, there’s no such thing as a butt being too big.’”

The women — and all of the sculptures in these two venues are of women — are often naked. Their stances, even in water, even when adrift, seem to me to reference a kind of steadfastness, a certain rootedness in cultural signification, even in the face of catastrophic circumstances, even in the face of history. These women are often weathered, weathering.

Saar turns again to water for the site-specific work based on Yemaja, at the Benton Museum of Art: “a 12-foot cast bronze female figure carrying a tower of basins and vessels on her head while pouring ‘water’ from a bucket. In Saar’s research into the museum site, she observed that the Pomona campus was once part of the San Antonio alluvial plain and prone to periodic flooding. Most notable was the 1938 flood, which prompted the construction of the San Antonio Dam and culvert to direct the water away from the growing campus and community.” In the current life of the spillway, the water could come back.

In “The Site of Memory,” Morrison writes that when the Mississippi River breaches its banks, we misname that process when we call it flooding. She tells us that the river isn’t flooding, “It is remembering … All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” This is fitting because Alison Saar’s attention on people so often cast out/outside shapes her work and the environments in which we see it.

Saar bears witness to the entanglement of people and environment, to animal and human, to air and earth. She works with the matter of Black life in the Americas, the African continent, and the Caribbean, and she does so without spectacularizing that life. In Saar’s work, we are somewhere in the suspension or perhaps elongation of time; somewhere in the spaces carved out by words and their new noun, verb, and adjective forms; somewhere made by Saar’s hand. We are still here, and we carry certain knowledges. With Alison Saar’s work, we are gathered into the space/time somewhere between Aether and Earthe.

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