Spend the Last Day of Black History Month with Alison Saar’s Prints and Sculptures

In her L.A. Louver show ’Syncopation,’ Saar injects music into work about natural disasters, slavery, and racism

Maybe you’ve been busy this month. Too busy to get a massage, take a beach day, or visit an art gallery. February is the shortest month. Life, work, and travel all get in the way. And there are never enough days.

But this February we have an extra day. And it’s a Saturday at that. It also happens to be your last chance to catch Syncopation, Alison Saar’s current exhibition of prints and sculptures at L.A. Louver, which is on display through Saturday, February 29.

At Frieze, L.A. Louver presented Saar’s Chaos in the Kitchen, an exhibition of new sculptures featuring warrior-like women wielding kitchen tools like weapons. But at L.A. Louver’s Venice gallery, you can see older works from Saar’s catalogue alongside newer pieces, and intimate woodcut prints in conversation with the sculptures that inspired them.

Alison Saar, ‘Kitchen Amazon’

Copyright Alison Saar

Printmaking has been an integral part of Saar’s creative practice for over three decades. She says her sculptures—fashioned out of found materials—typically come first. But sometimes, after a sculpture is complete, she finds she has more to say on the subject. In an effort to continue the conversation, she hand-carves woodblocks and prints editions of them on more found materials, like grain and seed sacks, old handkerchiefs, and vintage linen.

Saar, daughter of legendary L.A. artist Betye Saar, says new ideas often rise to the surface in her prints, which she describes as “studies of sculptures.” In Breach, which is printed on vintage grain and seed sacks and is part of a limited, variable edition, a vulnerable woman appears stranded on a small raft in the midst of a large body of water. She has no clothes, and all her earthly possessions are balanced on her head. She’s in a desperate situation.

Alison Saar, ‘Breach’

Alison Saar. Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

Saar explains the subtle perspective shifts between the print and the sculpture on which it is based: “As a sculpture, we just had her on a raft on the gallery floor, not on water. An advantage here is we have the water. Sometimes I find after doing the sculptures, it’s nice to reexamine those ideas and hone them in a different way.”

Not all of Saar’s prints are reflections on sculptures. Printmaking itself is a medium she respects, enjoys, and consistently returns to in her work. On the gallery’s back wall, a collection of vibrant, jazzy linocuts called The Copacetic Suite began as a public art commission in New York, an installation printed on glass at Harlem’s 125th St. Metro North Station.

On the wall just to the left of The Copacetic Suite at L.A. Louver hangs a tall man with dark hair and a green tin suit. Charming Young Man is a sort of flat, 2D sculpture attached to the wall. The figure looks like a very cool cat, juggling a hat, a branch, and a martini. “In the 1980s I was very fond of martinis, still am,” Saar quips.

Made from painted ceiling tin and wood that Saar rummaged from around her Harlem neighborhood, this 1985 piece feels strikingly contemporary next to Saar’s newer Copacetic prints. The same can be said of the bright blue Diva (1988) that occupies the center of the space.

Saar says she enjoys reengaging with some of her older works, describing them as old friends or relatives who have returned after a long journey and are stopping by to say hello before heading to their next stop. “They all have personalities,” she says. “It’s nice to see them come back.”

In Diva and Charming Young Man, Saar recognizes old habits. Both of these older works have eyes, she points out, while newer sculptures in the room do not. She sees more whimsy in her older works as well. “I miss that whimsy. Maybe it’s the times, but my newer works are much darker.”

In addition to eyes, Diva has teeth, and a small songbird locked behind a dirty window above her breast that represents “a song inside of her.”

In fact there are songs all over the room. It’s almost as if you can hear the melodies and rhythms of black American music emanating from Saar’s pieces.

“If I could sing, I’d give up art in a heartbeat, it’s such a magical thing to do,” she says.

As she responds to Mississippi floods and Louisiana hurricanes, slavery and racism, and the complicated history of black America in her work, Saar pays attention to the music. Don’t miss the chance to use this extra day of black history month to listen to what she has to say.

RELATED: Betye Saar’s Washboards Are an Artistic Act of Defiance

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