Optical Allusions


Betye Saar, born in 1926, didn’t take up art until the early ‘60s, but she long ago made up for lost time. For a quarter century, the Los Angeles artist has been known for assemblages of old worn household objects that evoke African American life of the past. Once inspired to incorporate provocative stereotypes from mass culture, her work always had a parallel track of gentle nostalgia.

Nowadays she works solely in a lyrical form, wholly dependent on the moods and allusions she can conjure from found materials. As easy as it may look (it’s more about putting things together than crafting them in the first place), this work is devilishly hard to do well.

Artists who have successfully put their stamp on this type of work--including Edward Kienholz, Christian Boltanski and Doris Salcedo, a Colombian artist who showed recently in Venice, Calif.--are relatively few. That’s because the stakes are so high.


The problem with “Voyages,” an installation by Saar at Saddleback College Art Gallery, is that it falls short of transforming ordinary objects into a mythic presence.

The piece, which consists of several tableaux and mixed-media paintings, seems to be at least in part about the burden of history--specifically the horrors of slave ships that brought Africans to the New World.

Saar uses repeated imagery of boats (sailing ships and canoes) and brides, seemingly as a way of connecting the past to the present and linking them to the Jungian theme of life as a journey.

Her trump card is a crude historical diagram of a slave ship on which ant-sized black figures are lined up like so many anchovies in a tin.

Yet this shocking image is far more potent than the flat pedantic art Saar fashions with it--layering it on top of a thrift store painting of a schooner (“Maiden Voyage”) and sliding copies of it underneath each of the miniature gray frigates attached to the train of a white satin dress (“Bride of Bondage”).

Another white dress appears in the bottom of a skeletal canoe (“Forgotten Summers”) suspended from the ceiling under a fragile string of party lights. Another canoe (“Limbo”) is filled with twigs and two children’s chairs that face each other across a grid of burned candles.



An aura of doom pervades these pieces, suggesting the threads of a narrative. Were the children lighting candles, playing at some mysterious rite? Did the woman who wore the dress in the canoe drown while everyone else was making merry under the lights?

She might be related to the woman seen in “The Mulatto,” a photocopied watercolor of a grieving young mixed-race woman in 19th century dress who sits in a rowboat that hasn’t left the dock.

On this “found” image, Saar painted clustered heads of female slaves and stern-visaged suffragettes. Each group is segregated in its own corner, neither perhaps able to empathize with the dilemmas of a woman who owes allegiance to two competing identities.

This woman, in turn, could be a spiritual sister of the ghostly nude figure in Saar’s painting “The Launching,” who places a flaming heart into a canoe by moonlight.

There is a sense of suppressed tragedy here--a stillbirth? an out-of-wedlock (possibly mixed-race) child abandoned? Is the bird perching on the woman’s back a good or bad omen? Might there be a happy ending, a la Moses in the bulrushes? Or is the image about a different form of emotional bereavement?

These two paintings have a much deeper and more focused emotional resonance than the three-dimensional works. Yet despite the obvious efforts Saar made to invest the entire voyage with a poetic aspect, it seems more wishful than actual, either too flat or too vague to be more than fitfully engaging. Lacking presence, these works leave the viewer becalmed.

* “Voyages” by Betye Saar continues through April 29 at Saddleback College Art Gallery, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. Monday-Wednesday, noon-4 p.m.; Thursday, noon-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Free. (714) 582-4924.