Betye Saar: “Still Tickin'” at SMoCA

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Among artists who boldly address our country’s lingering racism, there are few so enduring and recognizable as Betye Saar, the longtime Angeleno who has worked in assemblage, sculpture, works on paper and cloth, and mixed-media installations for six decades. Her most iconic works are her political ones, in which the assemblages appropriate a number of derogatory images and objects: Aunt Jemima and “mammy” dolls, fake watermelon slices and actual chains, to name a few. Adding to the mix are thrift-store finds such as clocks, birdcages and vintage furniture, all used to their symbolic fullest.

Saar is turning 90 this year, making this well organized retrospective of more than 150 works both timely and celebratory. In addition, “Still Tickin’ ” lends insight into Saar’s broad and societally relevant range of concerns, here divided into three areas: mysticism and ritual; nostalgia and memory; and politics and race. A viewer following the themes in this non-chronological order can still detect Saar’s consistent blend of emotional impact and intellectual rigor. Standout installations include House of Fortune (1988), where tarot cards caught in tumbleweeds surround a reader’s chairs and table. Also inviting contemplation is a small, teal-colored and dimly lit room called The Alpha & Omega, which is by turns haunting and ethereal. An antique crib filled with ornamental balls sits in one corner, while birdcage-based assemblages, candles and clocks fill the rest of the space. Suspended above it all is the skeleton of a boat, which gives a sense of floating through space and time or, perhaps, of entering an abyss of pain and loss.

The last section features especially powerful installations and small works, including I Will Bend, But I Will Not Break (1998). Here, Saar uses-as she often does-the stamped image of blacks crammed in a slave ship, this time on a wooden ironing board jarringly placed in front of a crisp white sheet monogrammed with “KKK.” Such ugly subject matter is further underscored in an area marked off by red walls that brings together some of Saar’s earliest assemblages using derogatory ornamental figures and decorative objects from the Jim Crow era. Also featured nearby is Weight of Persistent Racism (Patented) (2014), a tower of kitchen scales, a clock and a blackbird, created in reaction to recent police shootings involving young black men. The symbolism readily affirms not only Saar’s forthright pouring of emotion into her work, but her continued relevance as well

Weight of Persistent Racism (Patented)
2014
Betye Saar
Mixed media assemblage
25″ × 9″ × 7″
Photo: courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton