Alison Saar: Racial history and its implications

Alison Saar's exhibition of prints and sculpture at PNCA deals with layers of racial history and current realities

By LAUREL REED PAVIC

In its simplest form, an exhibition consists of a selection of work pulled from a collection by a curator. The show Crepuscular Blue: Prints and Sculpture by Alison Saar from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation currently at the Center for Contemporary Culture (CCAC) at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) is the result of a far richer process. Instead of a collection and a curator, this show’s generation involved an artist, a daughter, a printer-turned-curator-turned-collaborator, and a fortunate institution.

This exhibition brings together 19 of Saar’s prints from Schnitzer’s extensive collection and four sculptures and one woodcut from the L.A. Louver Gallery in Los Angeles. The curator, Paul Mullowney, is a Master Printer and owner of Mullowney Printing Company in San Francisco. Mullowney met Saar through her daughter, Maddy Leeser, a PNCA alumna and former student of Mullowney’s. Mullowney was already set to curate a show from Schnitzer’s collection when he met Saar and soon shifted his approach so that the show concentrated solely on her work.

Alison Saar, “High Yella Blue”,lithograph/Courtesy of Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

Saar and Mullowney collaborated on three of the prints in the show during the summer of 2017 at Mullowney’s studio (Muddy Water, Topsy and the Golden Fleece, and Eclipse). Both Mullowney and Saar were at PNCA in mid-September and worked on High Cotton alongside students in PNCA’s MFA program in Print Media. Saar gave a lecture at PNCA on September 19 as part of Schnitzer Visiting Artist Lecture Series. Crepuscular Blue continues at PNCA’s 511 Gallery through October 14.

Saar is a sculptor who is also a printmaker and consummate collaborator. Her work engages with racial stereotypes, American history, Modernist tropes, Greek mythology, and contemporary events with equal tact and finesse. Saar is the daughter of an artist but, in turn, she is the mother of artists. No element or identity is treated as more or less worthy of consideration in her work; all are of value.

Saar is a talented printmaker but identifies herself first as a sculptor. Many of her prints are variations on themes and compositions first presented as sculptures. The notion of the “cotton eater” is one that Saar has explored in multiple works. The initial sculptural exploration, Cotton Eater from 2013, is full-length nude on a pedestal laden with a harvesting bag that extends down to the floor. The nude pops a cotton tuft into her mouth.

Alison Saar works on “High Cotton” with PNCA students/Photo by Meghann Gilligan

The 2014 considerations of the theme in Crepuscular Blue are a sculpture entitled Cotton Eater (head) and a large woodcut Cotton Eater II. The sculpture is a detached head on its side with cotton and seeds spewing from the mouth onto the pedestal. The woodcut depicts a woman in a transparent shift dress standing amongst vines of cotton. She holds three flowers in her hand and eats the bud from a fourth. Here Saar deftly confronts American history and the legacy of cotton as labor and symbol. Picking cotton was presented as a means to salvation through “honest” hard work. Yet the people picking the cotton did not reap the economic rewards of their labor, the work allowed them to survive but not to thrive or change their situation. Saar likens this to food in which there is sustenance but no ultimate nutritional value. The theme confronts historical reality and raises questions about contemporary implications and parallels.

Pallor Tricks is a second sculpture/print pair, though in this case the print predates the sculpture. Pallor Tricks is an etching of a nude woman with a collagraphed diaphanous white veil covering her form. Similar to many of Saar’s prints, the background is spare. The 2013 sculpture of the same name is a small bronze figure with a white silk veil thrown overtop of it. The name, of course, is a play on “parlor tricks” and raises the notion of a deceptive costume, casting to be “paler” as a game that both obscures and reveals insecurities and racism.

Alison Saar, “Equinox”, lithographs sewn together/Courtesy Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

In the case of Equinox, the print itself pushes against the expectation of two dimensions. This composition is two lithographs hand-sewn together with red thread with an added collage element that hovers off the surface. The theme is taken from Greek mythology: Demeter, the goddess of the harvest stands upright on a groundline and is mirrored by her daughter below, Persephone, the goddess of the underworld. The stitching that links the two together is just below the ground line. Demeter is black against a blue background; she holds her breasts and milk flows in dual tributaries toward the ground. Persephone is upside down, white against a red background and attached to her mother by her feet. Persephone’s breasts are replaced by bunches of grapes and wine flows instead of milk. The collage element is the web of intermingling white milk and red wine.

In her lecture, Saar revealed that she made this print shortly after her daughter left home for college. It bears noting that Saar is also the daughter of the artist, Betye Saar; she bears her mother’s legacy just as her daughter bears hers. So while this is a retelling of a Greek myth, it also is a meditation on the relationship between mothers and daughters, on separation and interconnectedness, perhaps even inescapability. (I can’t help but think that it is also an acknowledgment that being a mother sometimes requires wine.)

Saar often prints on found materials to give depth and meaning. Indigo Blues shows a woman with blue-black skin and stiff pigtails printed on a hand-dyed indigo sugar sack. The production of both indigo and sugar depended heavily on slave labor. Coal Black Blues shows a man with similarly dark skin printed on an old shop rag from a railroad. The words on the rag “[Stay] Alert Stay Alive” add an urgent warning that extends beyond the exhortation for general workplace safety to the contemporary world.

Across the gallery are two editions of High Yella’ Blues and one of Redbone Blues. In contrast, these examples are printed on vintage handkerchiefs. Both prints of High Yella’ Blues are on a lace-trimmed ivory field and show the same light-skinned woman with tears. The substrate for Redbone Blues is a man’s plaid handkerchief. Whereas the darkness of the figures’ skin is emphasized in Indigo Blues and Coal Black Blues, in High Yella’ Blues the figure’s skin tone is markedly lighter, the lips are stained red and the falling tears are lighter than the facial field rather than darker. In Redbone Blues the figure has a pressed white collar and neatly parted hair.

Alison Saar, “Muddy Water,” monotype/Courtesy of Paul Mullowney

The pairs are powerful as they are presented in the 511 Gallery. The duo of Indigo Blues and Coal Black Blues is visually striking in its juxtaposition with the dual-colored Equinox. In her lecture, however, Saar showed the pairs in opposite orientation so that High Yella’ Blues acted as pendant, or complement, for Indigo Blues and Redbone Blues acted as pendant for Coal Black Blues. Saar’s framing interprets the set as about inner-racial racism and the fraught legacy of “passing for white.” Saar’s own interracial identity makes this reading particularly pertinent and personal. This meaning can still be teased out by a careful viewer but is worth highlighting as it attests to one of Saar’s great strengths, her navigation of multiple identities. This strength is a consistent touchstone in Saar’s work and was made abundantly clear in her lecture.

The results are powerful and thought-provoking. They are confrontational but approachable and memorable. And perhaps most worthy of awe is that she does it all with authenticity and grace: two qualities to which we should all aspire.

NOTES

Alison Saar’s Crepuscular Blue continues at PNCA’s 511 Gallery, 511 NW Broadway, through October 14.

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