Monday, September 16, 2013

Alison Saar: Still at the David C. Driskell Center

Alison Saar, Hankerin' Heart
Last Thursday, I drove across town in rush hour traffic as a spectacular downpour sent huge streaks of lightening flashing across the sky. I was trying to get from my office to the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts of African Americans and the African Diaspora in time to hear Alison Saar talk about the extraordinary, enigmatic, moving, works in her exhibition, Still. Rushing up the back stairs nearly an hour after the reception was scheduled to start, I was sure that I was too late. So I was delighted to her her amplified voice as I walked into the spacious gallery, which was filled with so many visitors that it was hard to see either the artist or the art.
Alison Saar, Black Lightening
As I was to soon discover, Saar had just begun to talk about the eleven sculptures that were scattered around the room, filling it with their energetic presence. The first, near the entrance, was a strange-looking contraption consisting of a mop; a low stool; a bucket, two boxing gloves made out of glass; and an assortment of wires, pipes, and machinery, including a hand-operated pump. The boxing gloves were filled with water that had been dyed red, to resemble blood. As the artist demonstrated, working the pump causes some of the red fluid that is in the bucket to move up through the pipes into the boxing gloves, so that it spills out over the wrists and falls back into the bucket. As Saar pointed out, Black Lightening uses the images of boxing gloves and blood to evoke the violence of many professional sports; while the closed circuit of red fluid suggests the limited and limiting choices between entertainer and janitor that society offers to the young, Black men who are given little education and less hope. This does not, of course, exhaust all the possible interpretations of this piece -- the artist's thoughts are only the beginning of the conversation.

Alison Saar, Weight
Young, Black women are often similarly limited in their life choices. In Weight, Saar balances the sculpted figure of a young, nude, Black woman sitting on a swing against shackles, boxing gloves, pots and pans, a scythe, and other objects suggesting domestic labor or work in the fields. In describing her process of working on this piece, Saar mentioned that she has been criticized for insisting on making images about the injustices suffered by African-Americans, since she looks as though she is a White woman of privilege. What these critics seem to ignore is that Saar, herself, is a person of mixed race. And even if she were not herself of African heritage, Saar feels keenly that injustice to one is injustice to all.

Alison Saar, Hankerin' Heart (detail)
Justice, however, is not Saar’s only issue. The awkward, leggy cast bronze sculptures called, collectively, Hankerin’ Heart are three meditations on the universal desire to feel loved.  Mosey, Hincty, and Gimpty (I never quite figured out which is which) are variations on the theme of having one’s heart exposed, naked, vulnerable. Each one is about the size of a human being, if that human being were reduced to nothing but nerves, blood vessels, and longing. At certain angles, the torn, scarred, sewn-together hearts resemble faces, scrunched down between hunched shoulders, yet peering out hopefully. Haven’t we all felt like that sometimes?

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