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In Sally Saul's "Blue Hills, Yellow Tree," The Mythical and the Domestic Collide


Installation view of Sally Saul: Blue Hills, Yellow Tree. IMAGE COURTESY OF PIONEER WORKS © DAN BRADICA. 

Installation view of Sally Saul: Blue Hills, Yellow Tree. IMAGE COURTESY OF PIONEER WORKS © DAN BRADICA. 

By Brienne Walsh

I’m a mess. I had my second child seven months ago, and I still have trouble gathering my thoughts enough to write an email. My formerly promising career as an art critic and essayist is in complete shambles. I stay within a one-block radius of my apartment building most days because it’s too hard to get my two-year-old and my 7-month-old down the stairs of our third floor walk-up. I have very little help except from an angel of a babysitter who comes for 12 hours a week. To make matters worse, on Monday, when crossing the street, a white van hit our double stroller with both of my kids inside. They miraculously survived, the worst of their injuries a gash next to my daughter’s right eye, but now, I’m afraid to leave the house with them.

I say all of this because I don’t know how else to begin. I loved Sally Saul’s exhibition “Blue Hills, Yellow Tree,” open at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn until Sunday, July 7, because it provided a brief reprieve from the maelstrom that is my life as a mother. Comprising of ceramic sculptures made over three decades, along with a selection of works on paper, the exhibition feels distinctly of the hearth, which is to say, exalting in the warmth, beauty and power of the domestic. It felt peaceful; it felt beautiful. It felt intellectual, as well, and a bit weird. There are sculptures of beavers, fish and squirrels. There is Snowdrops (1999), a wall plaque that depicts a white house surrounded by trees. There is Graduation (1997), made on the occasion of Saul’s daughter’s graduation from high school in Austin, Texas, which shows her daughter as a baby wearing a graduation cap. There is Lo Que Quiero (2000), which translates as “whatever you want,” and depicts a nude figure with blue eyes and yellow cornrows sitting within a circle made of rocks. Within the circle are also sculptures of a fox, a bird and a skunk, as well as two strange, straggly trees. They could easily have been pulled from a children’s book; they could easily be a fairy tale.

“Describing what I had in mind is difficult, but something to do with solace, being part of an environment, the disappearing environment,” Saul told me when I asked her to explain what was behind the piece. “I grew up in the countryside outside of Ithaca, New York, and the woods and gorges provided adventure, exploration, escape, provoked the imagination, all early experiences that reside in and shape you to some degree.”

Forests, and nature, historically play malignant roles in fairy tales. They are places where witches sacrifice infants over fires; they are places where children get lost, and then are captured to be fattened for a meal. They are also places were magical, timeless creatures roam. Unicorns, fairies, nymphs and elves. The three figures that comprise of Saul’s sculptures Eyeful (2002), Effigy with Skirt (1998), and Effigy with Feathers (1999) might merely be sculptures of strange, Botero-esque figures, neither children nor not-children; or they might be just momentarily standing on pedestals at Pioneer Works until Saul releases them back into the woods.

I asked Saul how often she draws from myths and fairy tales in her work. She told me: “I sometimes return to myths because they are such good stories, and brutal too. The punishment so often seems to outweigh the crime or simply the cheekiness or hubris of the mortal.”

The references she makes, both visually and in her captions, betray her learnedness. Ophelia’s Flowers (2018) are an array of ceramic blossoms scattered on a bed of velvet. “I suddenly thought of Ophelia in the play coming on stage scattering flowers that’s she’s holding, naming the traits - i.e. rosemary for remembrance, pansies for thoughts, daisy for dissembling, and so on, as a way of alluding to the tragic situation that envelops her," Saul says of the inspiration behind the piece. The base of Graduation, which contains leaves and fruit, references from Luca della Robbia, an 15th century ceramic sculptor from Italy. A series of busts pair accomplished men — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower — with accomplished women — Gertrude Stein and Rachel Carson — in an attempt to rectify the masculine skew of history.

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