Profile: Alison Saar (1956-)

Alison Saar is a Los Angeles, California based sculptor, mixed-media, and installation artist. Her artwork focuses on the African diaspora and black female identity and is influenced by African, Caribbean, and Latin American folk art and spirituality. Saar is well known for “transforming found objects to reflect themes of cultural and social identity, history, and religion.

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Early life and education

Saar was born in Los Angeles, California, to a well-known African-American sculptor and installation artist, Betye Saar, and Richard Saar, an art conservationist. Saar’s mother Betye was involved in the 1970s Black Arts Movement and frequently took Alison and her sisters, Lezley and Tracye, to museums and art openings during their childhood. They also saw Outsider Art, such as Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles and Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley. Saar’s love of nature, intense interest in vernacular folk art and admiration of artists’ ability to create beauty through the use of discarded items stemmed from her upbringing and exposure to these experiences and types of art. Alison worked with her father as a conservator for eight years, starting while she was still in high school. This is where she learned to carve, and she notes that it later influenced the materials she would use in her pieces. Dealing with artifacts from different cultures‍—‌Chinese frescoes, Egyptian mummies, and Pre-Columbian and African art‍—‌taught Alison about the properties of various materials, techniques, and aesthetics.

Saar received a dual degree in art history and studio art from Scripps College (Claremont, CA) in 1978, having studied with Dr. Samella Lewis. Her thesis focused on African-American folk art. She received an MFA from Otis College of Art and Design (Los Angeles, CA) in 1981. In addition to their distinguished separate careers, Saar and her mother Betye Saar have produced artworks together. From her mother, Alison “inherited a fascination with mysticism, found objects, and the spiritual potential of art.”

Work

Saar is skilled in numerous artistic mediums, including metal sculpture, wood, fresco, woodblock print, and works using found objects. Her sculptures and installations explore themes of African cultural diaspora and spirituality.  Her work is often autobiographical and often acknowledges the historical role of the body as a marker of identity, and the body’s connection to contemporary identity politics. Snake Man, in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art, is an example of how the artist references both African culture and the human body in her work. The artist’s multiethnic upbringing, multiracial identity, and her studies of Latin American, Caribbean, and African art and religion have informed her work. Her highly personal, often life-sized sculptures are marked by their emotional candor, and by contrasting materials and messages, she imbues her work with a high degree of cultural subtext. Her sculptures represent issues relating to gender and race through both her personal experience and historical context. Believing that objects contain spirits, she transforms familiar found objects to stir human emotions.

Saar’s work “Hi, Yella” was included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, a benchmark in American exhibitions for its critical tone and content. In a review of the Biennial, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith said that Saar’s work was among the “few instances where the political and visual join forces with real effectiveness.” Of Saar’s 2006 exhibition Coup, critic Rebecca Epstein wrote, “[Saar] demonstrates deft skill with seemingly unforgiving materials (bronze, lead, tar, wood). [She] juggles themes of personal and cultural identity as she fashions various sizes of female bodies (often her own) that are buoyant with the story while solid instance.”

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