ONE WORK: Lezley Saar, “Miss Pearly, The Transcontinental Mind Reader,” 2017
California African American Museum (CAAM)
By Betty Brown
On view through February 18, 2018
This is part of an ongoing series of essays focusing on a single artwork. It seems to me that one of the most important things art can do in our fast-paced, virtual/digital world is to force us to slow down and spend time looking. Hopefully, the One Work essays will effect an appreciation of the art that unfolds over time, as well as understanding that builds to broader insight.
We have been imprisoned by dualist thought. Since at least the time of the Ancient Greeks, there has been a Western Cultural tradition of linking two concepts; Aristotle wrote about male/female, master/slave, active/passive, mind/body, and culture/nature. We could add white/black, good/bad, rich/poor, and heterosexual/homosexual to the historic list. The problems with such pairs are three-fold: one is always valued over the other; they are seen as opposed (culture versus nature, etc.); and both members of the pair are considered absolutes, like white and black, with no gray territory in between them. Lezley Saar’s remarkable exhibition at California African American Museum (CAAM) challenges us to break out of the dualist prison and traverse the gray zones of ambivalence, contradiction, and uncomfortable uncertainty.
Her “Miss Pearly” is a dazzling portrait of a pale-skinned, white haired figure in an antique lace-trimmed dress. The portrait is executed with Saar’s typical finesse, deploying finely controlled surfaces, precisely rendered drawing and stunningly surreal juxtapositions. Painted on a tall tapestry banner that is adorned with braid, ribbon and tassels, the image has an uncanny presence that is both seductive and disturbing. Although the strong-featured face is attractive, it defies any easy or dismissive “read” because both race and gender are questionable. Is it a man or a woman? Is the person of European or African descent? How do I refer to the figure? He? She? It? They? And how do I describe the figure? Black? White? Albino?
Conveying discomfort about fixed personal categories is one of the artist’s goals. By situating her subjects in recognizably historic clothes (especially the fussy moodiness of Victoriana) and mixing the dominant designators of both race and gender, Saar lifts her subjects out of the culturally determined “norm.” Because we can’t get a quick read, we are compelled to look, really look, at the images. As we do, we are confronted by the Other.
I stood in front of “Miss Pearly” for quite some time, asking myself what it was that makes the figure “female” and what makes it “male.” The hair is thick and curly like a woman. The clothes are traditionally female, as is the thin gold necklace. And the artist titled the piece “Miss Pearly.” But the nose and chin are heavy and angular, like a man’s. And there’s something male about the cool, distant gaze. Saar gives us one more hint: the subtitle of the paintings is “Transcontinental Mind Reader”–which alludes to the popular Victorian entertainment of seances and spirit turning. Of course, “trans” also can refer to people who change genders, which requires crossing the dualist divide.
The name of Saar’s exhibition is “Salon des Refuses,” a wry art historical reference to the notorious exhibition of paintings rejected by the French Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1863. Much like the artworks deemed inadequate for official academic exhibition, the people in Saar’s portraits (some of whom are actual historical personages, while others are imagined) have been rejected by the dominant culture because they didn’t appear or behave within societal norms.
The tension between a culture’s ideals and the lived experiences of those cultural members who don’t fit into those ideals is one of the most powerful forces for separating and devaluing people. Lezley Saar pictorializes this tension with beautifully painted portraits of gender and racial fluidity.