The human brain works as a binary computer and can only analyze the exact information-based zeros and ones (or black and white). Our heart is more like a chemical computer that uses fuzzy logic to analyze information that can’t be easily defined in zeros and ones. ~Naveen Jain
One world deals in absolutes: “Black vs White” and “Light vs Dark”…
Another deals with the space in between: the greys, the beige and the things that aren’t quite in clear focus.
Roberts & Tilton’s expansive review of Betye Saar’s work presents these two worlds in Black White and Blend. They are represented by works that reflect on ideas that involve strict absolutes and the cloudy ambiguity that rests in between. While Saar’s work revolves around themes related to loss, justice, inequity and pain, this combined show invites visitors to view her works through two decidedly different lenses: one binary and the other hazy.
In Black White, Saar examines the legacy of language and how it is used to shape our perceptions on race. Her assemblages in this small gallery space reflect how we use language to trigger either positive or negative associations with people, events and social constructs. Why is someone blackballed or whitewashed? These works are clear in their meaning and leave little room for interpretation. They speak to our proclivity to process information in binary computer code, using only 0s and 1s, and in this show opposing themes of life vs death, wealth vs poverty and wins vs losses are depicted in works featuring cages, scales, dice, washboards and other mixed media.
In the main gallery, Blend presents history, time and space from an enigmatic position that mashes up themes and ideas that aren’t easily distilled to either black or white. On one side of the gallery a large-scale mixed media installation is painted in cobalt blues and shades of terra-cotta that’s augmented with the discarded detritus of printed circuit boards and wires. At the bottom of the installation an altar is in place. It’s one of 2 altars in the gallery space that combine discarded computer hardware with objects of nature and harmonizes them – blurring the lines between the computerized and natural world.
Other fluid, ambiguous themes are presented in the remaining installations in the space including one exploration into the middle passage in “The Destiny of Latitude vs Longitude”, 2010. This large-scale assemblage includes a sea of wavy silver hair that floats at the bottom of a large grey birdcage. Within the cage two clipper ships are making a perilous journey, leaving behind mementos and debris from the ship’s unknown inhabitants. A prescient bird is perched on top of the cage but the bird remains trapped within it, powerless to change the course of the ships and forced to witness the passage of time and the uncertain fate of the two ships within its sphere.
While the exhibition toggles between the binary lens and the hazy lens, the show is punctuated by three works, two from Black White and the other from Blend in a manner that betrays their categorization and offers alternative interpretations of the work.
On the surface of “The Flight of the Trickster”, one may get an immediate feeling of mourning. This large mixed media piece features a black canvas that’s covered in handmade black paper with a silhouette of a woman’s dress. Her face replaced by a clock with green eyes in the clock’s 9 and 3 positions. The rest of the woman’s facial features are obscured by the netted veins of dried seaweed. Continuing with an oceanic theme, the figure wears a halo of 7 starfish.
With Saar’s work, the longer you look the deeper you see and this piece is filled with double takes. Embellishments on the woman’s breast are actually black widow spiders encased in black webs. The embroidered hem of the black lace gown is formed from the shadowy figures of conjoined (perhaps shackled) black men. Two ravens floating above the figure are lifting the spaghetti straps of the dress with their beaks…the piece transforms from a possible narrative of death to a suggestion of life, as a figure subtly emerges from the center of the dress revealing an etched birdcage with a lone bird in its center. The rounded cage is shaped like a womb or a globe, and despite this promise of life, the piece leaves the viewer questioning what world this new life will be born into. The hint of a life relegated to imprisonment is reinforced through Saar’s use of the cage symbolizing imprisonment throughout other assemblages in the show.
By contrast, “Passe Blanc” features a ghost-like image of a woman on rice paper, an apparition floating into another world. There are no cages or symbols of imprisonment in the serigraph, no shackles or chains or games of chance that would preclude the apparition’s movement between worlds. According to Saar the piece addresses “racial invisibility”, with the name Passe Blanc referring to the practice of “passing” for white, forsaking one world for another.
Finally, in “Blend”, another large mixed media collage similar in size to the Trickster, we see another silhouette of a woman adorned with white gloves holding on to an image of a woman. The figure’s dress is anchored by a lace fan and adorned with butterflies that symbolically suggest a completed transformation. In this piece the promise of life through the use of leaves is more apparent, but it raises questions regarding the woman who lives in this rose-colored world. It’s entirely conceivable that the woman in “The Flight of the Trickster”, “Passe Blanc” and “Blend” are one in the same, but raises questions about the Trickster and what she had to do (or give up) to traverse these worlds. It is unclear and nebulous.
The works in Blend are purposefully enigmatic and leave interpretations wide open for viewers to bring their experiences and perceptions to the work. While the messages in Black White are clear this show brilliantly toggles between these two worlds and gives viewers ample space to contemplate their own realities vis-a-vis the works in the show.
For me, the opening of Black White and Blend fell within the final 60 days of the election cycle and I looked at these three works in particular (Trickster, Passe & Blend) through a decidedly political lens. There are people who can freely navigate a binary black/white world, thriving and capitalizing from the hard work and achievements of one with the privilege afforded by the other. They also have the freedom to easily thrive in a grey space where the binary is obscured and the rules of the game are consequently dictated by them; but ultimately this grey space asks more questions than it answers– most notably, what does this freedom of movement cost?
Black White & Blend, are on view at Roberts & Tilton through December 17, 2016
Issue Magazine, “Betye Saar”, Interview by Sola Agustsson, September 2016