“Cabinets of Curiosities” are small collections of ephemera curated by antiquarians and naturalists who used objects “to tell stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world.” These collections of skulls, specimens, botanical sketches, and other flights of fancy were popularized during the 19th-century Victorian era and were displayed in small spaces called Wonder-Rooms or curio cabinets where they became status symbols of patronage, conquest, and travel to distant lands.
In Lezley Saar’s Salon des Refusés, the artist recreated a Wonder-Room in an installation that introduced viewers to subjects in paintings through objects. The curiosities on display included books that were carefully placed on Victorian velvet settees surrounded by glass-encased ostrich eggs and butterflies, silver hairbrushes, medical instruments, a taxidermied armadillo, skulls, keys and a red felt Masonic hat. Many of the objects in the installation were found painted or collaged within the paintings in the exhibit.
Saar’s latest work challenges our notions the margin as it highlights those that are marginalized beyond society’s traditional ideas of normalcy. Her work rests decidedly in the grey and it rebuffs any binary physical classifications of race, gender, sexuality or class. Liberated from rigid categorization, Saar places her subjects in surrealist worlds that fuse scientific cellular themes with cosmic concepts and in doing so, Saar’s work brings the viewer into her subjects’ exploration of their natural unbounded world.
Lezley Saar’s latest show at CAAM closed yesterday, but some of her work is currently on view (along with her mother Betye Saar and sister Alison) at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History.