Betye Saar


Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
November 6, 2010 - January 15, 2011

Betye Saar: CAGE, A New Series of Assemblages and Collages
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

Betye Saar spent four years preparing for this exhibition - not a small effort, considering that she is eighty-four-years-old. The result was an impressive installation, and it demonstrated that Saar continues to be a creative and critical voice to be reckoned with.

In addition to several collages, the show featured 20 of Saar’s signature mixed-media assemblages, all involving birdcages. Collected at yard sales, flea markets, and antique shops, these finds were presented on pedestals and suspended from the ceiling. Each one contained different objects, ranging from model ships, woven braids and artificial birds to racially degrading Aunt Jemima figurines. Within this dramatic display, formerly lifeless objects were transformed into confined protagonists, alluding to social, racial, gender-based, psychological, spiritual, economic, and historical exclusion.

Saar has worked with notions of repression and resistance for over four decades. As a woman born in the 1930s of African, Native American, and Irish descent, she has experienced firsthand the difficulties ingrained in these topics. Her ongoing dedication to their visualization proves her ambition to create works that can function as a voice for those who suffer(ed), as well as aid in educating and sensitizing younger generations.

While Saar’s works can translate as outcries of protest, they avoid specificity. Her vocabulary is more poetic than explicit. Instead of offering didactics, she aims to establish general moods of aggression, frustration and claustrophobia for example, which encourage viewers to seek their own narratives. The cages evoke a clear sense of anxiety, but they do not pinpoint concrete events; instead, they reflect ongoing problems such as racial discrimination. While Saar gathered objects from the past, she was careful to provide a timeless context. Contemplated individually, her sculptures not only spark memories, they also inquire into present fears and hopes for the future. One wonders what is really confined here. Is it history, persistent stereotypes or simply our thoughts? For Saar, the cage signifies physical and spiritual confinement, but it also implies resilience and survival.

Aesthetically, Saar’s work is hard to categorize, not least because of her eclectic references. Since the 1970s, she has found inspiration in African African-American ritual objects, and her works reflect a strong interest in magic, mystery, and folk legends. Saar has also been significantly influenced by Joseph Cornell, among other Modernist and Surrealist overtones. But unlike Cornell, who drew from the unconscious to transform commonplace objects into dreamscapes, Saar has always offered a distinctly socio-critical outlook. Her work might appear whimsical and delicate, but it is utterly sober in its focus on the unspeakable crimes of humanity. In that sense, she has taken on the quest of challenging our collective memory.