Flash Art n.281 November – December 2011
ROBERTS & TILTON - LOS ANGELES
The idea of a retrospective, especially one of such monumentality as to accommodate the iconic figure of Betye Saar, might appear a daunting prospect — not to mention the sometime tendency for art galleries to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. So it was especially satisfying to walk into Roberts & Tilton and not be overtaken by a slew of Betye Saar’s ‘greatest hits,’ of which there are many. While some are of course included, the breadth of this viewing experience presupposes the obvious and allows for many powerful new works to speak for themselves.
The exhibition, aptly titled “Red Time,” is a site-specific retrospective installation, an amalgamation of found, created, borrowed and recycled objects. Indeed, everything here is red, a compositional gesture that operates both literally and metaphorically. The color red is the visual announcement of change, albeit sometimes violent, of transformation, prosperity, life, vitality, joy and passionate love. In celestial terms, red is the color of Mars, the God of War. The show is divided into three distinct categories: “In the Beginning” (1960-70), “Migration and Transformation” (1970-2010), and “Beyond Memory” (2010- 11). These exemplify Saar’s past, present and future, and certainly works like the inimitable The Man From Phrenology (1965) stand as visual testament to human transformation — not simply of the human mind itself, but of human history, as Saar suggests here that change is imminent and ever-shifting like the inner working of the human brain. This work in particular is a subtle call to arms.
Other works like Sock It To ’Em (2011) also advocate freedom and a shift from traditional and often stereotypical cultural norms, although this work takes a much more obviously proactive approach, juxtaposing a boxing glove with a time piece and a “mammy” salt shaker. It is as though the little figurine, hands on hips and ready for a challenge, would take on the whole world in the name of personal freedom. Even the clock here suggests its own evolution and perhaps that of the artist herself as she still, at 85, continues to pursue cultural awareness and personal autonomy. Freedom is Saar’s life work, and it is truly a never-ending journey.