Bakalar & Paine Galleries, Massachusetts College of Art and Design • Boston, MA • • January 22–March 8, 2014

By: Debra Cash

Adding to a palette that has included reused and salvaged scrap wood, cast iron skillets, tin ceiling tiles, shed antlers and wild roots, American sculptor Alison Saar recently learned how to handle glass. The material’s transparency and fragility shape the organic and figurative motifs in her current solo show at MassArt.

Glass adds another layer of mystery to Saar’s female iconography and to her combines that explore and problematize race, gender, spirituality and family ties. “It’s the ideas that determine my materials,” she recently explained but “on a lot of levels, glass is magic: you take sand and can transform it into an impermeable, clear vessel that can hold acid.” During a 2011 artist’s residency at Pilchuck in Stanwood, Washington, Saar further stated “I was interested in the history of glass, the alchemy, and even the contemporary use in laboratory work” and spent hours both in the studio and in Pilchuck’s expansive craft library. Saar was intrigued by the hidden histories of distilleries—stills—that produced illicit liquor, especially in rural communities.

Alison Saar, Rouse, 2012, wood, bronze, paper and antler sheds; 90 x 76 x 73″.
Photo: Chris Warner. Courtesy of Kortenhaus Communications.

The Los Angeles-based Saar is an alumna of Otis College of Art and Design where Still was curated by Meg Linton at Otis’s Ben Maltz Gallery. She has become a familiar presence in Boston. Last year she gave the MassArt Adderley Lectures that honor
distinguished artists, historians and writers of color.

Of the 11 works created between 2010 and 2012 included in Still, four put glass into the service of vexed metaphors. 50 Proof, a surreal, semiautobiographical contraption made of a battered washbasin and a glass female head, refers to her own biracial inheritance and that of her mother, artist Bettye Saar. (Bettye Saar’s work in Williams College Museum of Arts’ Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, was reviewed Art New England’s November/December 2013 issue.) The doll-like head weeps black tears from its eyes, only becoming truly “visible” when the head fills with the opaque fluid. In Black Lightning, a bucket on the floor siphons red “blood” into a crumpled pair of transparent boxing gloves lashed together with black shoestrings. The danger, violence and pathos of this image—made random and custodial by the addition of a found mop and wooden stool—is unmistakable.

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