Rejected People Find a Home in the Otherworldly, Highly Personal Paintings of Lezley Saar

Lezley Saar has always had to explain herself. The 64-year-old painter, daughter of legendary Black Arts Movement artist Betye Saar, only began to pursue art seriously after the birth of her own daughter, Sóla, about 27 years ago. “My mom is black and my dad was white, and I look ...” — she pauses and lets out an almost revelatory chuckle — “... really white.” 

Twiddling dreamily at a bracelet of carved-bone florets, Saar moves quietly through the mahogany-painted gallery where her work is currently on display. Unclasping her hands, she motions to a large portrait of a fair-skinned woman in Victorian dress. The woman, she says, is Tanzanian and has albinism. In the same breath, Saar alludes to her own identity as a mixed-race woman who appears white. As she lowers her arm, the velvet-cuffed sleeve of her flowery cape falls from her elbow, trumpeting down around her fingers. She is one with her works — a 21st-century enigma in Edwardian dress.

Throughout Saar’s work, the autobiographical becomes otherworldly. Pairing varying shades of skin color with surrealist symbolism and old-fashioned dress, she places herself and the reality of her identity into a different time — a time that, as she explains it, conveys a certain truth: “I like that era … the Victorian, the Gothic, late 1800s. That’s around when photography was invented, so you actually have evidence of how people lived and dressed.”

This sort of time travel plays out over and over again in "Lezley Saar: Salon des Refusés," now on view at the California African American Museum. An homage to outsiderness, the exhibition shows Saar’s deep flirtation with the ostensible. Grappling enormously with face-value appearances, her work derives beauty in those who are often deemed by society to be anomalies or aberrations. “A lot of people who are viewed as freaks are quite beautiful to me,” says Saar, who is no stranger to the myths and misconceptions associated with those who might seem “abnormal.” 

From the series "Madwoman in the Attic/Madness and the Gaze"EXPAND
From the series "Madwoman in the Attic/Madness and the Gaze"
Courtesy Lezley Saar and CAAM

"Salon des Refusés" (Salon of the Rejected), which alludes to the 1863 showcase of artists rejected by the prestigious Paris Salon, includes three of Saar’s most recent bodies of work: "Madwoman in the Attic/Madness and the Gaze," "Monad" and "Gender Renaissance." The first works in the gallery are those of "Madwoman in the Attic/Madness and the Gaze," in which Saar calls into question the stigmatization of madness. A glassy-eyed Bertha Rochester, the “violently mad” and mistreated first wife of Edward Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, stares blankly. Her dark eyes are framed within a tree adorned with surrealist ephemera, collages of photographs that hang from the boughs like ornaments. Due to the precision of the portrait and its accompanying collage work, the image of Rochester, who in the novel is described as being “of Creole heritage,” is the only work in the exhibition to be painted on a plain, white background.

“Something consistent in Lezley’s works is that they’re all painted on different fabrics or atypical materials,” says the exhibition’s curator, Mar Hollingsworth. “It’s almost like assemblage in a very subtle way. She adds those underlayers of meaning, giving the work an extra layer of information. Besides, there’s something kind of terrifying about a white canvas.”

Born in Hermosa Beach in 1953, Lezley Saar is the eldest daughter of artists Betye and Richard Saar. As a young girl, she had white, curly hair and pale skin, “So ostensibly,” she says, “to the world, I was white.” Saar remembers the uneasiness that would set in when her mother would pick her up from school or take her out shopping. “People would think she was my nanny. It was hard for her, but my mom was never really the type of person to complain, she just mostly put it in her art.”
Betye, now 91 years old, is known for her assemblage work, particularly her artful reframing of the “mammy,” a figure created during the era of American slavery as manufactured evidence that enslaved black women were happy to be slaves. Her work gives a sort of militant agency to the historically powerless. For Lezley, these bold reconfigurations of the powerless had a lasting impact.

“My mom was a real pathfinder," she says. "Not just with her political activism but in her use of assemblage. There really aren’t too many in the arts that are well known for that.”

Lezley Saar represents "rejected" women in her new CAAM exhibit.EXPAND
Lezley Saar represents "rejected" women in her new CAAM exhibit.
Courtesy Lezley Saar

Despite the enormous influence of her mother and an early dalliance with mixed-media collage and altering book covers through portraiture, Saar decided not to pursue art, at least not formally. “I really thought I’d wanted to work in radio. I was interested in being a DJ and doing political interviews. Just being in college in the Bay Area in the early ’70s during the Black Power Movement — that’s something that really forms you,” recalls Saar. She pauses and adds, “I was really going in a different direction. I thought it showed a complete lack of imagination to do what my parents did.”

Coincidentally, it took becoming a parent for Saar to start pursuing what her parents did more seriously. Motherhood provided a sort of permission to go ahead and put her work out there: “I didn’t feel like there I was risking failure as much since I now had this other thing — this human thing — that was so much more important to me.”

Over the last couple of years, Saar’s role as a parent and mother has intensified, often steering her work in new directions. The second collection on view in "Salon des Refusés," a series titled "Gender Renaissance," features portraits and scenes of transgender and gender-fluid people set in 18th- and 19th-century England. The series, inspired by her 25-year-old son, who recently transitioned from female to male, presents a collection of racially diverse portraits and subverts traditional notions of gender through symbolism.

Flowers, insects, bats, candles and eggs sit atop the heads of Victorian-garbed people, contextualizing each as being in transition — the egg for rebirth, the candlestick for truth. The objects, biological and otherwise, represent the origins and endpoints of a gender identity that is felt yet not fully realized. In works like A Perfect Gentleman (2016) or Teetering on the Ledge of a Transient Thought (2016), notions of dysmorphia, passage of time and newness are all at work.

For Saar, who recalls with a bit of uneasiness the day her son first announced that he wanted to be a man, the series is one of her most personal. “When he was in middle school,” Saar says, “he would dress up like Che Guevara — I thought it was a Halloween costume. What started as a Halloween costume, though, turned out to be a daily uniform.” Through all this time bearing witness to her son’s emotional and psychological trauma, helping him navigate doctors and insurance, and learning to understand the implications of being misgendered, Saar managed to find a bit of beauty. “I create work and my son is creating himself. We’re both just conducting our own creations.”

Creation itself unravels before the viewers’ eyes in the final grouping of works, "Monad." Saar’s favorite explorers — that is, spiritual explorers — stand atop magnified human cells, which float like planets through space. Women writers, philosophers and scientists, all of whom explored the mysteries of life and nature in their work, now reside as one with their own radical mysteries.

For Saar, who prefers to exist in her own world, "Monad" is the final frontier. It is the beginning and the end, a place where neither time nor space is a factor, where all of us — even the rejected — dissolve into the same stardust.

"Lezley Saar: Salon des Refusés," California African American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, on view through Feb. 18. (213) 744.2084, caamuseum.org.

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