Crocker Art Museum celebrates Saar family’s powerful work challenging race and gender stereotypes

The “Legends From Los Angeles” exhibition is in what is essentially a hallway at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Photo: Letha Ch’ien

Museums all over the country may have been scrambling to demonstrate their diversity bona fides, but “Legends From Los Angeles” at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento is not an exhibition of tokenism.

Featuring 23 works by legendary Black artist Betye Saar and her two daughters, Lezley and Alison, the exhibit is steeped in African American culture with witty nods to European art history. Despite its location in what is essentially a hallway, “Legends” is the kind of show you think about four days later sipping a cup of coffee over the kitchen sink.

“I turned my back on the ocean defacing the ocean,” a paper collage and photograph by Lezley Saar. Photo: Agust Agustsson, Walter Maciel Gallery

Following the Crocker’s reopening on Thursday, April 8, at 25% capacity, “Legends” is on view until Aug. 15. It’s a treat for Northern California fans of the Saars after the San José Museum of Art’s “Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Lezley, and Alison Saar” in 2006. Works on display at the Crocker by the three Los Angeles artists include three-dimensional collages, also known as assemblage, and “Six Serigraphs: Bookmarks in the Pages of Life” by Betye Saar, an installation and prints by Alison, and a paper collage and painted banner from Lezley.

Over two generations, the Saars have produced a powerful body of work challenging race and gender stereotypes, often working in the Bay Area.

Artist Betye Saar is known for collecting racist artifacts and incorporating them into sculptural assemblages. Photo: PBS

Betye Saar, who was born in Los Angeles in 1926, began collecting racist artifacts and incorporating them into sculptural assemblages like “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972) owned by the Berkeley Art Museum. The younger Saars — Lezley once attended San Francisco State University and worked as an illustrator for Bay Area writers, including Ishmael Reed; Alison, the 1989 winner of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship — gained attention in the 1980s and ’90s for work also exploring gender and race.

To see the work of all three together reveals intergenerational interests and familial persistence.

Alison Saar’s “Hades D.W.P. II” is a commentary on how water supplies, especially those serving communities of color, are often poisoned. Photo: John Wynn, Lafayette Art Galleries

Alison Saar’s “Hades D.W.P. II” from 2016 is pure magic. Five glass jugs filled with colored liquids sit on a ledge. A ladle hangs underneath each, inviting passersby to dip in and take a drink. You might be tempted if the colors of the liquids were not so off-putting. A typed label identifies each jug as containing one of the five mythological rivers of the ancient Greek underworld (a.k.a. Hades from the title): Drink the gasoline-brown water of the Acheron for pain; the cleanser-blue Styx for hatred. The titular “D.W.P.,” referring to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, reminds us how community water supplies, especially those serving communities of color, are so often poisoned.

Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” is the subject of Betye Saar’s “Woman With Two Parrots.” Photo: Roberts Projects

And cultural references proliferate.

Betye Saar’s “Woman With Two Parrots” uses Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” for its subject in following the Renaissance tradition of artwork based on poetry. Lezley placed a serpent on the head of the woman depicted in “Zerpenta Dambulla: Born under the shade of a black willow tree in New Orleans in 1826 sat on a rock turning rain into tobacco smoke,” suggesting a parallel to Medusa’s transformation of men to stone when they looked upon her hair of snakes. Alison encased “Man in Blue Suit” in a yellow mandorla halo identical in shape to the gold halos common in medieval and Renaissance art. The deep blue of the man’s suit evokes medieval art’s use of expensive lapis lazuli pigment for holy figures like the Virgin Mary, and simultaneously the hue of indigo grown by enslaved African and African American people on plantations.

Lezley Saar’s “Zerpenta Dambullah: Born under the shade of a black willow tree in New Orleans in 1826 sat on a rock turning rain into tobacco smoke” suggests a parallel to Medusa. Photo: Agust Agustsson, Walter Maciel Gallery

The Crocker began collecting the work of the Saars when the Sacramento chapter of the Links, Incorporated, a not-for-profit service organization founded by African American women, donated Betye Saar’s “Remember Friendship”, a shadow box assemblage, in 1975, the year it was created. Since then, the Crocker’s Saars collection has grown to the extent that it can mount a show entirely from its own holdings.

The richness of the Crocker’s collection and the museum’s commitment to California artists are why it’s surprising that “Legends” can be found in a hallway sandwiched between the modern art galleries and a 19th century Dutch landscape show. The awkward location invites viewers to pass across the exhibit rather than linger (I counted five exits along the hallway), yet the artworks still halt many a visitor.

The “Legends From Los Angeles” exhibition can be easily overlooked because of its location, but the art manages to stop visitors. Photo: Letha Ch’ien

The Saars’ erudite references to European mythology and art demand that African American art, culture and history be understood as part of the dominant historical narrative that has often excluded people of color, especially women. We all lose if we force “Legends From Los Angeles” to either be a Black woman artist show or a historical show instead of both.

The Crocker should be applauded for its collection history, for this show and for the formal diversity, equity and inclusion group established last year by museum employees.

“It’s an important example of looking to American history and using that to empower the future,” Associate Curator Jayme Yahr said of the show.

I look forward to seeing another show like this one soon, but hopefully out of the hallway.

“Legends From Los Angeles”: Prints, sculpture, assemblage. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Through Aug. 15. $12; $8 for those 65 and older, college students and military; $6 for ages 6-17; free for those 5 and younger. Advanced timed tickets recommended. Free admission on Sundays through May 3. Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento. 916-808-7000.

Angelia S. Rico

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