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Betye Saar at the California African-American Museum 

Wednesday, Apr 8 1998
"Ritual & Remembrance/Personal Icons" provides an introduction to the work of as semblage artist Betye Saar. Saar, who watched Watts Towers being built when she was a child growing up locally, finds most of her materials at flea markets, at antique stores and in the garbage. She combines junk, castoffs and heirlooms with pieces she has handcrafted, creating works that range in size from modest shadow boxes to room-size installations.

By collaging objects from a variety of cultures and belief systems, Saar attempts to make use of energies retained from their previous lives. Though the powers of these objects are sometimes nonspecific, Saar uses them as a cook might use spices, trying to find a combination that will produce some mysterious magic.

A room-size installation shown here is created from three separate works grouped together within purple walls. Upon first approaching the room, viewers are greeted by a foreboding shadow of a skeleton within a field of swirly spirals. Further inspection reveals that the actual bony monster is lying on the skeleton springs of a mattress suspended from the ceiling. Floating in the sky, taking a nap, it looks down on a card table that has been inscribed with the outlines of hands joined together, as if they were having a séance. The sounds of wind chimes can be heard coming from an unknown source. The floor is covered with crunchy leaves and twigs, and aside from a spotlight that throws a crisp shadow on the wall, the only illumination is from the simulated fire of a flickering faux candelabrum at the side of the room, and from a rotating fireplace, its fake flames illuminated from within. The installation feels like a haunted back yard, with elements of comfort and terror blended together.

Though many of the signifiers Saar uses are unrecognizable to an eye not trained in the intricacies of world religion, this doesn’t seem to matter. Saar’s interest in the spiritual is oblique, curious and nonspecific. The works do not subscribe to a particular belief system.

Another work, Technomojo, combines traditional religious charms with contemporary technological icons. In this 28-foot plywood altar, copper wiring and computer circuit boards are combined with pictures of Jesus, stamped tin eyes, small silver legs, mirrors, beads and hearts. A poem on the wall nearby includes the line "high tech succumbs to magic," a sentiment that is surely echoed by legions of computer users. Saar’s use of computer parts works both formally and conceptually. Transistors and circuit boards — small, colorful objects imbued with significant cultural importance — are comfortable alongside traditional religious objects.

Survivors of the high-tech scrapheap also appear in many of Saar’s small, framed shadow boxes, which, like the large installations, combine elements of various cultures and religions. In The Messenger, snakes and mummies are collaged with orange transistors, which, strangely, do not seem out of place. Another piece, Eyes of the Beholder, contains an upside-down tart pan painted with eyeballs alongside a golden sun and moon. Other pieces in this series employ a variety of suggestive icons: feathers, mahjong pieces, dice, rings, small bottles, drawings and leather.

In an interview, Saar defines a mojo as "an amulet or charm used in some voodoo-based rites. Its power is somewhat ambiguous, as it depends on both the user’s motive and strength of belief." As a collector and collager of mojos, both technological and traditional, Saar possesses a vast and multifaceted spiritual paint box. Her studio is a clearing-house for mystical objects, and the works that emerge from it are contemplative, playful and curious.

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