Remaking Mythology

Sculptor alison saar recycles ancient archetypes through her own rough-hewn, lyrical lens to explore the stages in women’s lives.


The psychological and the mythological come together in the sculpture of Alison Saar, known for her figurative work which harkens back to ancient archetypes and nearly forgotten goddesses. At the same time, she says, “I find that whatever the state my current psyche is, the work is tied into it in some way.”

We are in Saar’s studio space, a room at one end of her Laurel Canyon home, a home she shares with her husband, son and daughter, and at least two dogs that freely slip in and out as we talk. Right now, half of the space is enclosed by walls of plastic sheeting meant to prevent dust and wood chips from flying into the rest of the house. Before us lies a rough-hewn female figure, propped up on its back and awaiting its finishing touches. An assistant is on the other side of the partition, pouring wax into molds to make tendrils and roots for another piece destined for Saar’s new show at L.A. Louver, entitled “Hither.” In it will be a series of powerfully evocative sculptures and drawings which continue her exploration of the stages of a woman’s life.

“I see this show as a response to my two shows prior,” the artist says.

Two years ago she had her first show at L.A. Louver, which was entitled “Coup” (“cut” in Old French). “It was about cutting loose my kids, cutting loose some parts of my life,” she says. That was followed by last year’s show at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York, called “Whither”-hinting at both the winding down of the life cycle, as well as the question of where to go next. “When you cut something down, it dries up, it withers,” she says. At the same time, “Some of the imagery may be going underground.”

“This show is trying to be the spring response for [to] that,” she says. “Here I’m playing with the mythology of Demeter and Persephone.” The stout figure before us is a version of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the earth, of bounty and fertility. When this piece, Sea of Nectar, is complete, she will be standing and holding her breasts in two hands, with streams of milk issuing forth from her nipples onto the ground.

The piece has been assembled out of lengths of board glued together, then cut with a chainsaw to achieve the overall shape. Chisels will be used to carve out details. When that stage is done, Saar and her assistants will spend a day or so cutting and nailing pieces of ceiling-tin to the surface of this figure, encrusting it in a patterned metallic “skin.” The “milk” will be cast from patinaed bronze.

It is one of Saar’s signatures to cover figures with patterned ceiling-tin, usually salvaged from old buildings. When she lived in New York, from 1982 to 1995, the tin was fairly easy to find. These days it is increasingly scarce, but recently a friend of retired gallerist Jan Baum donated some to the artist. Saar points to a small stack of sheets. “This is all I have right now; it’ll just be enough to cover her.” She likes the material, she says, because “I like the idea they were in all these buildings, looking down on what was happening. I love the idea there are these histories in the materials I use.” There is also a reference to scarification, a form of skin decoration practiced by certain African tribes.

According to Greek mythology, the goddess Demeter brought agricultural blessings to the land of men, creating hospitable weather and making things grow and thrive. Then her daughter Persephone was kidnapped by naughty Hades, god of the underworld. Grief-stricken, Demeter went in search of her, and in her absence plants began to wither; animals failed to reproduce. When she found her beloved daughter, Persephone had, alas, eaten a few seeds from a pomegranate during her stay. Thus, she was obliged to remain in the underworld for a third of the year (or half the year in some versions)-that is, the winter months. When she is allowed home, her mother celebrates by bringing spring-an imaginative way to explain the seasons.

Sea of Nectar puts together ideas of fertility and the earth; how a goddess might fertilize the earth directly with her milk. Pomegranates will be featured in another work, Brood, in which a small figure atop a series of stacked chairs will be depicted casting down pomegranates made of cast bronze.

The show’s titular work, Hither, will be a black figure with white moths coming out of her mouth. Saar plans to spread clusters of moths-repoussé copper pieces painted white-throughout the gallery, “sort of occupying the space,” she says. Why moths? As usual, her iconic associations work on multiple levels. “Moths are nocturnal creatures, they’re related to lunacy,” she explains. “I also kind of think of them as messengers between worlds.”

The new group of work, she continues, revolves around her thinking about aging and about menopause, the end of childbearing years and all its implications. No, she doesn’t shrink from the ‘A word,’ and she has even started thinking about trying out media and methods that might be less taxing to her body. Long term usage of the chainsaw, for example, seems to be creating numbness in her hands, so maybe gentler and kinder ways of working are in the offing.

The daughter of assemblage artist Betye Saar and ceramicist and conservator Richard Saar, Alison had an early fascination for world mythology. She studied both art history and studio art at Scripps College. Then, she says, “I realized how much I like making things with my hands.” And so she went on to get an MFA from Otis Art Institute, now Otis College of Art & Design.

All that art history has proved very useful, though. She often integrates female deities of the Americas that have African roots into her work. “I’ve done a lot of research in world mythologies and how they overlap and coincide,” she says. “I’ve been especially interested in the perseverance of African deities in the Americas, and despite efforts to erase them, how they survive in rituals and symbols.” One of these deities is “the mother of the waters,” which became known as “Yemeja” in Brazil. The centerpiece of her installation Afrod(e)ity (2006) is a woman bathing in cold water: she stands with a silver fan in one hand and bolts of blue cloth emanating from the other. Her hair is made up of twists of real coral, and behind her is a kind of celestial map with stars represented by seashells.

This piece was among those seen in a touring show “Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Lezley, and Alison Saar.” Organized by the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this estimable show also featured work by Alison’s mother Betye Saar and sister Lezley Saar, and was on view ­at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in the summer of 2006.

Betye Saar is a noted pioneer in the history of both Black American and Women’s art of the late 20th century. She started as a printmaker, then saw a show of Joseph Cornell boxes at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967. “They were very jewel-like,” she has said. “It was like putting a whole little world in a small container.” With her young daughters in tow, she searched flea markets, thrift shops, and estate sales to pick up old photographs, accessories, and household items, and began assembling her own miniature tableaux. Sometimes she integrated items passed down from her own family.

Interested both in exploring and exploding stereotypes, she created what is probably her best known piece in 1972, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Set in a glass-front box, it features an Aunt Jemima figure with a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other. “I take the image and recycle it,” explained Saar, long represented by Michael Rosenfeld in New York. “Instead of making her a slave, a domestic who’s looked down upon and ridiculed, I’m making her a warrior.”

Lezley also actively makes artwork. In the past she made personal books and collage works, which were shown in the touring show. Recently, she has been making large-scale drawings-drawn tendrils and networks interlinking circular photographs, taken mostly by the artist herself-which were shown last fall at Walter Maciel Gallery in Culver City.

Over the years, Alison Saar completed several major public works. Last November saw the completion and installation of a project she worked on for nearly five years: the Harriet Tubman Memorial in New York City, at the intersection of W.122rd Street, St. Nicholas Avenue, and Frederick Douglass Blvd. It’s a larger-than-life homage to the heroine of the Underground Railroad, which helped many a black slave to escape from the South to the North. Tubman is shown striding forward, the faces of freed slaves on her ample skirt, roots projecting from the back of her dress and diving into the promontory-like pedestal. Small panels at the base of her skirt depict pivotal moments in her life. (The work received an “Excellence in Design Award” from the New York City Art Commission in July 2005.)

To continue the interview we move into the dining room; now the smaller dog is whining and pushing around his dinner bowl in a continuous ellipse. Saar gets up to feed him. She begins wondering about what to make for dinner for the rest of the family.

In her new piece Equinox, two figures mounted on the wall will be standing feet-to-feet-again, illustrating the aboveground/underground idea of Demeter and Persephone. I observe that many of her pieces are about precarious balance or two figures counterpoised to one another. She responds with a chuckle. “That’s the way I feel sometimes, of trying to juggle so many things.”

Somehow, one senses that she wouldn’t have it any other way.

-Scarlet Cheng