Sally Saul has been making sculpture for 30 years. The work she has contributed to group shows over the past couple of years have offered a tantalizing glimpse into what she has been up to, but have left me, like most viewers, hungry for more. Now that hunger has been appeased. Her exhibition Sally Saul: Knit of Identity at Rachel Uffner (September 10–October 29, 2017), her first solo show in New York, has 19 ceramic sculptures and assemblies, with lots of different parts.
The show’s title comes from Walt Whitman’s great poem, “Song of Myself,” which opens with these memorable lines, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself […].” Here is where the show’s title appears:
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Whitman’s rhythmic repetition of “always” is one of the keys to his poem and, I think, to Saul’s ceramic sculptures. There is an urgent hum and raging optimism running in tandem through Whitman, which Saul shares. The difference is that Saul has a sense of humor, which was not the boastful blabberer’s strong suit. In “Vulture Party” (2017), an assembly made of seven separate ceramic pieces, there are three vultures waiting to feast on the spotted spiders and/or the frog (your choice) gathered in front of them, presumably including the bug caught on the frog’s tongue. This is Saul’s view of the food chain: something eats something eats something else. Within this vision of the world’s “knit of identity,” the vultures, largest members of the group, have their place and the right to party. With their wings seemingly folded behind their backs, they are not ungainly, opportunistic carnivores, but gentlemen dressed in black patiently waiting their turn.
It is in her attention to specifics that one senses the completeness of Saul’s vision. In “Together” (2017), there are two polar bears, one with its red tongue sticking out. What is on that animal’s mind? Saul’s creatures — human, animal, and otherwise — inhabit a prelapsarian domain, where it is not uncommon to find, as in “Dancing Girls”(2017), two naked young women flapping their arms, while a vulture, head bowed, inexplicably stands between them.
Her figures “She” and “He” (2017) look puzzled, as if they are not quite sure what to do. The woman — who, at nearly two feet high, is slightly taller than the man — rises on sturdy legs. Self-possessed, she looks upward, as if at the sky, while the man (or “He”), who shares the same pedestal, as “She,” appears more apprehensive than his female counterpart. His mottled blue, yellow, and earthen red skin offers viewers another way to look at him; he is not just a sculptural form, but a playing field for color changes.
While there is a whimsical side to many of works, it is offset by Saul’s quirky subject matter. In “Frog” (2017), a large, happy frog pulls a bumblebee into its mouth with its tongue. In “UFO” (2017), a black and red flying saucer — the shape seems inspired by a 1950s toy — is perched on the crown on a tree whose two upper trunks have been cut off, making for a perfect landing place. There is a curious cat at the base of the tree, as well as a pink and green ladder leaning against it, which changes how we look at the encounter.
In “Man Overboard” (2017), a dory sits on a shelf, its oars untended. Mounted on the wall above it, three signal flags, whose designs are geometric and abstract, are each framed by a blue ruffle (or what can be read as a cord). The connection between the signal flags, which exist in one reality, and the dory, which exists in another, has already caught your attention when you glance inside the dory to find a large weird starfish sitting there, and suddenly everything about the experience changes.
The starfish — which looks rather sinister — and the pink and green ladder leaning against a tree in “UFO” speak to Saul’s eye for the odd detail that simultaneously fits and upends the whole. I didn’t expect to find an oversized starfish sitting in a dory, with its five stubby appendages unable to grab the oars. And I certainly wondered if someone had climbed the ladder and was welcomed aboard — or abducted inside — the UFO; I suspect that the cat was also wondering what was going on up there. This is what animates Saul’s work — we end up asking what is happening or has happened. Why are the young girls happily dancing with the vulture? As Whitman writes in “Song of Myself,”
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Saul shares Whitman’s irrepressible optimism, but what they have even more in common is a democratic desire to make art that is direct and inclusive, without playing to the audience through production costs and oversized perfection. This does not mean dumbing down your work or trafficking in clichés — quite the opposite — and besides, Saul has too much respect for the viewer for that. Her works are funny, sweet, and tender — states we are not likely to encounter in art or even in life. Just look at the laced red sneakers, one of five pairs of footwear in “Untitled” (2017), or the flowered “Panties” (2017), and it is evident that Saul is driven by an urgent hum that looks at everything with the same generous equanimity.
We ought to appreciate the frog gleefully slurping down the bumblebee because who knows how long such a sight might exist. Certainly, Saul’s portrait of her artist husband, “Peter,” whose head is rising out of his blue pullover, is full of affectionate humor. He looks serious enough, but the paint brushes rising out his head like feathers in a Native American headdress, adds another dimension. There is nothing innocent or naïve about her refusal to be gloomy, which is refreshing, if not redeeming.
Sally Saul: Knit of Identity continues at Rachel Uffner (170 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 29.
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