Lezley Saar is a visual artist whose paintings, mixed-media works, and altered books are centered on the human figure and on narration. Her work gives recurring depictions of persons outside the realm of what is supposedly ‘normal’. Since the 1990s, the artist has worked with paint, fabric, and found objects to comment on “hybridity, acceptance and belonging.” Inspired by a love of literature, Saar uses mixed media as her paintings often incorporate digital photography to depict the people in her art and to explore Edwardian and Gothic theme
Her paintings deal with mental, physical, and spiritual issues in the lives of marginalized people. Her recent exhibition at the California African American Museum (CAAM) showed her latest three series: “Madwoman in the Attic/Madness in the Gaze 2004-2012, which explores insanity and the mental realm; “Gender Renaissance” 2015 – Present, which explores the physical realm; and “Monad” 2014, which explores the spiritual realm.
While her “Monad” collages, combining elements of Dada and Surrealism, produce richly colored, almost painterly montages of opulence and buoyancy, it is her “Gender Renaissance” series which resonates personally for her. This series was inspired by her transgender son, who has been transitioning from female to male for the past five years. Saar says, “It’s been a really interesting journey, and I wanted to do it from my experiences, which have been a tad surreal. That’s why there’s surrealism worked into the symbolism and imagery in that series.”
One of these paintings “Miss Pearly, the Transcontinental Mindreader” (2017) is an acrylic painting on fabric, which imitates Victorian wallpaper. It shows a portrait of an albino woman in an old fashioned 19th century, decorative setting. Saar, a biracial daughter of artist Betye Saar and art conservationist father Richard Saar, states, “I often do portraits of people with albinism as a metaphor for myself. Someone who’s black but looks white.”
One of the ways Saar deals with current gender and racial issues is by “setting things in the past to make a current social comment because it gives it a little bit of distance and is maybe not quite as heavy-handed or corny.”
Saar received her B.A. from California State Northridge in 1978. In 1996, Saar received the J. Paul Getty Mid-Career Grant. Her work has been shown in group and solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, and in the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2009. In 2017, she had a solo exhibition “Salon des Refuses” as mentioned above at the California African American Museum (CAAM). Her work is in the public collections of CAAM, Smith College Museum of Art, and Museum of Contemporary Art.