Allison Saar is known for her sculptures and installations which explore themes of African cultural diaspora and spirituality. Her sculptures are often life-sized and represent issues relating to race and gender. Her use of cast-off and found objects gives a vernacular folk art quality to her art.
Saar grew up surrounded by art. Her mother is Betye Saar, the acclaimed sculptor, printmaker, collagist, and assemblage artist. Her father is Richard Saar, a painter and conservationist, who ran a restoration shop. Saar developed her own artistic practice, creating sculptures made from restored found objects.
In 2016, L.A. Louver Gallery presented a magnificent show of her work whose themes were displacement and water. Her monumental, 12-foot tall, “Breach (large figure on raft)” was the centerpiece of the show. “Breach” is a powerful nude figure balancing her belongings on her head. The sculpture evokes a flood narrative as the life-size figure is poised on a raft; she uses a pole to navigate. Her elevation on a pedestal suggests eminence. Her skin is made from rusted plates of embossed ceiling tin.
“Breach” animates “Silttown Shimmy,” a smaller pedestal sculpture of a woman wrapped in her own embrace. This is another totemic female figure a bit more than 2 feet tall. This sculpture merges profile and frontal views as her head tilts toward her shoulder. Carved from wood, the base is composed of ceiling tin and rubbed with enamel paint, tar, and silt to create a rich patina. This figure is posed like a classical Venus.
Saar also introduces current events with water as the continuous theme in “Hades D.W.P.,” an illuminated wall that holds five etched-glass jars, one for each mythological river in ancient visions of hell. This work references the poisoned drinking water from the Flint River which caused unspeakable injury to the African Americans living in Flint, Michigan.
Saar also works with prints which relate closely to her sculptures and assemblages. Against her prints’ spare backgrounds, her figures resemble freestanding sculptures. Her prints are thematically complex, drawing upon her deep interest in the African diaspora and issues of gender, race, culture, and history. Saar says that much of her work may be interpreted as autobiographical. Nearly all of her sculptures and prints explore aspects of the female experience. Some of her female figures appear to morph into utilitarian objects such as brooms, referencing the conventional role of women.
She often portrays people interacting with evocative objects, such as snakes, which allude to myth and legend. Her color palette is influenced by hues representative of spirits: red for Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder, or blue for Yemaya, the Yoruba goddess of the sea. Sea imagery recurs in her work and may represent both good and evil. Her sculptures and prints both contain layered meanings which bring social inequities to the forefront of her art through symbolism and myth.
Saar’s work has been shown in dozens of solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, especially in California and New York as well as in Japan, Austria, and Australia. She was included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial and has won numerous grants and awards. She won two Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two Joan Mitchell Foundation Awards among many others.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Baltimore Art Museum, Birmingham Museum of Art, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, LACMA, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Smithsonian Institution, Studio Museum in Harlem, Walker Art Center, and Whitney Museum to name a few.