by Douglas Messerli
Alison Saar: Topsy Turvy at LA Louver Gallery, Venice, California. I saw the show with Howard Fox on March 17, 2018
Los Angeles artist Alison Saar is at her very best in her new show at LA Louver (opening March 28th), using the character of Topsy from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a connecting link between the galleries’ sculptures and paintings.
Saar’s Topsy, however, is not simply the contrarian, “wicked” rabble-rouser of Stowe’s book, but becomes, through her mop of braided hair, a mythical figure who challenges the white slavery owners of the South, joining others on an exciting voyage, paralleling that of Jason and the Argonauts, to retrieve the Fleece of the Golden Ram, before transforming herself into a Medusa-like figure and joining an entire army of smaller Topsys hiding out in the cotton fields. In the 16 sculptures, drawings, and paintings of this show, Topsy becomes a black heroine threatening patriarchal ideas and seriously challenging male privilege—in short setting the world, as the show’s title suggests, “Topsy Turvy.” Even W. S. Gilbert, the so-called “king of Topsy-Turvyism might have taken great delight in this kind of vision.
Unlike Stowe’s novel in which the other major character, the golden-haired Eva, who, if we recall, offered as she was dying, a lock of her flaxen hair, in this version the warrior-like Topsy refuses to be tamed, in Topsy and the Golden Fleece, for example, standing, all in black, with her wild braids spiking out of her head like branches, as she holds a sickle closely to her chest, while in her right hand grasps the locks of golden hair not as a gift but more like the spoils of war.
Similarly, in The Wrath of Topsy, the iconic figure allows her heavily braided hair to rise up like Medusa’s snakes, fiercely daring anyone to come near her, even though the wood, ceiling tin, bronze and tar-covered figure represents only her head.
Yet there are milder visions of her as well, as in the wooden figure of Bitter Crop, (calling to mind Dinah Washington’s This Bitter Earth) which reveals her as a kind of curvaceous nude figure tempting heterosexual males.
In High Cotton (study) she joins others like her, eerily hiding in the dark, tufts of cotton sticking out of their heads as a mode of non-detection (Saar reported that slaves would often hide out in the cotton fields by placing tufts of cotton on their heads). And in the show’s central work, Topsy joins up with an army of small girls, each about 3-5 feet tall, who announce their identities through the plantation tools they carry, Rice (sickle), Cotton (bale hook), Indigo (hoe), Sugar cane (machete), Tobacco (tobacco knife)—all with branches of cotton upon their heads, as if trying to become invisible within the crop so central to Southern plantation life. This work says more about slavery and slave’s modes of surviving than almost other any work I’ve encountered. No stereotypical abandoned dancing, singing, and drinking here: these munchkins are surely “wicked” in their intentions of bringing down the hierarchies which they have had to endure. And you can only wish them the greatest of success.
Los Angeles, March 18, 2018