Art review: Betye Saar at Roberts and Tilton

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Call it a serial retrospective, the sprinkling of Betye Saar’s work throughout a substantial spread of Pacific Standard Time shows. Whatever each exhibition’s context—overall survey of the postwar decades, focus on the evolution of L.A.’s African-American art scene, a look at art of the late ‘60s/early’70s as cultural critique—Saar’s work matters and is seminal to the particular art historical lesson being taught.

For a more concentrated jolt, and a sense of how Saar’s potent sensibility manifests on its own terms, head to Roberts and Tilton. Her “Red Time” installation there occupies a single, modest-size room and functions as a macro-assemblage in itself, a grouping of objects whose individual resonance deepens and grows more complex in relation to the others. The walls are painted an intense cherry red, and works are mounted high and low, suspended from above and resting on the floor. Each of them is red or at least partly so, and the references range from blood to fire, from the heart to the stereotypically oversized lips of a little black Sambo character, from the flesh of a watermelon slice to the fabric of a mammy figure’s dress. Red is the color of life and of power, of passion and pain—all of which pulsate at once within this richly textured chamber.


The found objects and assemblages here date as far back as the ‘60s, but the bulk of the work is recent. Saar has a crafty way with time that helps give the whole continuity and coherence. She steeps her work in memory but charges it with immediacy. New and old pieces alike look backward and by implication, project forward. Materials with a timeless, spiritual aura (a Haitian-style beaded and sequined flag, a Coptic cross, a tabletop altar, a sculpted Buddha) co-exist among objects referring to a distinct place and period—racist clichés from the material archive of American popular culture, ships and chains recalling the transport of Africans to slavery.

Saar tampers with objects of everyday use, pressing like and unlike into common service as provocation, prompt and even solace. The wall-mounted ladder in “Red Ascension” tilts upward with hope, though between its rungs are reminders of loss and trauma — miniature sailing ships, padlocks and chains. Saar draws from symbols that both nourish and diminish, the combination endowing the work with complicated emotional density. Optimism consorts with anger. Emblems of harmony are interspersed among relics of exploitation and subjugation. There is much beauty in Saar’s work, but also plenty of tension. The mammies tend to be armed not just with brooms but with rifles or grenades, their motivation captioned by the words found near them on tarot cards (‘Justice’) and washboards (‘Liberation’). Throughout, clocks hint at the wait involved, the endurance required, the quotidian nature of historical change. Saar operates on intimate, global and cosmic scales at once, and everything that makes its way into her work becomes in some way a power object. Her first gallery show in L.A. since 1998, “Red Time” is among the strongest Pacific Standard Time corollary offerings, a soul-stirring soak in the physical and metaphysical, material, idea and belief.

-- Leah Ollman

Roberts and Tilton, 5801 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 549-0223, through Dec. 17. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Photo (top): Betye Saar’s ‘Red Time.’ Credit: Roberts and Tilton

Photo (bottom): Saar’s ‘Red Ascension.’ Credit: Roberts and Tilton