Lezley Saar: Diorama Drama
On ViewCraft Contemporary
Lezley Saar: Diorama Drama
October 21, 2022–January 8, 2023
An eerie, somber reverence permeates Lezley Saar’s exhibition Diorama Drama, staged as a mysterious confluence of tableaux formed from elaborate arrangements of mixed-media sculptures, paintings, tapestries, assemblages, collages, and altered books. Each mise-en-scène bears its own disparate title and thematic drift that play off those of the individual artworks within, suggesting complex yet ambiguous fictional narratives that flow seamlessly into one another, calling forth a mystical alternate version of the past. The stars of this show—or at least, the players that initially seize the viewer’s attention—are a cast of freestanding figurative sculptures presiding over each diorama, mostly in pairs or trios. Faceless, limbless, and clad in vintage robes, these tall, dignified, totemic personae represent conjurors, each endowed with a different set of magical powers denoted by its raiment, ornamentation, nomenclature, and surrounding relics. Enhancing the enigmatic atmosphere, the shamans’ heads are fluffy, knotted masses of flaxen or raven-hued tresses in configurations bringing to mind clouds or fairy floss. Additional characters emerge from two-dimensional works on the walls beyond, while small glass cases harbor miniature sub-plots running parallel to the larger scene.
The intrigue thickens as the titles of many artworks divulge their protagonists’ names and snippets of back-story. Inside The Fever Dream (2022), the diorama nearest the gallery entrance, is a conjurer titled Reuel is a shaman and spiritual healer…a living personification of the head-on collision of Catholic and African religions (2019), who dons Christian vestments and mojo bags alike. Arranged at her feet are altar dolls, an African mask, and a Vodou beaded bottle. Nearby is another deity sculpture named Mourna is the mother of the deceased, who, according to her title, protects all their secrets and memories … making the ground slippery with her tears (2019).
Much of the work here has been shown at other venues, including Saar’s 2020 solo exhibition at Walter Maciel Gallery, but this installation offers new material and fresh context. The artist conceived of the show’s theme and format based on her lifelong fascination with dioramas that originated in early childhood, when she whiled away hours exploring the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where her father, Richard Saar, worked as a conservator. However, in contrast to traditional natural history exhibits, which are ostensibly scientific yet often reinforce Euro-centric hierarchies, Saar’s displays privilege the paranormal and include a vast, equalizing array of elements associated with Western and non-Western cultures. And unlike typical dioramas intended to be seen from limited angles demarcated by glass barriers, Saar’s are meant to be experienced in the round. In order to fully apprehend each scene, one must walk through it from front to back, meandering between sculptures and vitrines and occasionally pausing to huddle in close and take in all the sumptuous detail.
Saar’s methodology recalls earlier legacies of African American assemblage artists, particularly her mother, Betye Saar. She approaches her work intuitively, building three-dimensional collages of items sourced from thrift stores, swap meets, and her personal collection of vintage curios. These found objects are redolent of former lives, use, and significance; yet Saar rarely divulges their individualities, instead synthesizing them into punctiliously orchestrated wholes incorporating sewn, painted, or collaged interventions. The results are dazzling in their minutiae. You might be drawn to read the inscriptions on tarnished silver spoons affixed to the black velvet of one shaman’s skirts, catch a glimpse of yourself in mirrors at another one’s feet, or discover antique embroidery depicting a cabal of cartoonish figures from Eastern European folklore. There is even a vitrine containing an evidently real human skull. Initially, everything seems to relate, but the deeper one ventures into Saar’s mythos, the harder it becomes to parse the cryptic symbols and unravel her characters’ stories, whose relation to the sights at hand is not always immediately apparent—what do the colorful eggs mean in Septime, a collector of breezes, hoarder of voices, and gatherer of olfactory ephemera, once changed her lover into a lake to protect him (2019)? The constant shifting between eras, locations, scale, and fictive personalities contributes to a disorienting effect that is further complicated by the various possible ways of interpreting her recurring motifs: snakes, for instance, are maligned in Western societies, but other cultures view them as signs of wisdom or fertility—many African and Afro-Caribbean religions include serpent gods.
The installation’s beguiling, fantasy-laden panoplies of textures, references, arcana, and time periods thus become points of departure for considering the intricacies of hybrid identities. Saar has long been interested in questioning the narrowness of societal perceptions of normalcy with regard to race, gender, color, and mental health. Earlier bodies of work have focused on contemporary rappers’ self-presentations, nineteenth-century women institutionalized for so-called hysteria and melancholia, and gender fluidity. Her protagonists here embody similarly complex selfhoods. In several works, including Illumination of a capsized sun (2021), Saar positions a Victorian-attired Black woman with albinism as an oblique metaphor for her own experience as a biracial person who identifies as African American but is often perceived of as white—a situation having led to moments of indignation, privilege, and awkwardness in her everyday life. Throughout her assemblages, the palette of her chosen objects and the qualities of hair, from textured white, gray, or brunette locks to straight blond braids, can further be interpreted as coded identity markers, especially in The Interrupted Story (2022), a tableau predominantly executed in shades of black, white, and beige.
Perusing Saar’s visionary realms, particularly those of her fabric pieces, I was reminded of Remedios Varo’s triptych painting Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle (1961), the protagonist of which sews her own reality to escape from a convent school. The multicultural, narrative-laced juxtapositions of Rina Banerjee also came to mind. But Saar’s mélanges are distinctive for their intersections of spirituality, Victorian aesthetics, and African diasporic experience. Her detail and care complete the overall feeling of a sacred space whose wistful, melancholy tenor hints at the weight and frustration of persecutions over centuries. Yet the artist’s celebration of her characters’ mystic powers ultimately seems hopeful, suggesting psychic abilities and spiritual beliefs as a means of survival and resistance. Subverting the paradigm of dioramas as didactic illustrations of categories rooted in colonialism, these surreal environments are geared to open viewers’ minds to possibilities beyond classification.