The Painful Beauty of Alison Saar's Stories

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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.

Fall, 2011, cast bronze

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.


Installation shot of Alison Saar's Still
at the Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Design

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.

Rouse, 2012 Wood, bronze, fiberglass and antler sheds

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.

50 Proof, 2012 Glass, copper, rubber, steel, soap, cotton textiles, enamel basin and water

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.

Weight, 2012, Wood, rope, cotton scale and miscellaneous objects

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.

View of Otis and LAX, photo by Tom Donohue

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.

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.