Here, a photograph of a figure in a Victorian-era mourning dress looks out across a seascape. Madness, or hysteria, was considered a malady during the Victorian period and was disproportionately ascribed to women. Emotion was further viewed as a weakness. The figure has been obscured by paper cut-outs of a skeleton which suggest the literal framework of a body. The unoccupied chair, mourning dress, and skeleton signal death and loss. The title of the work also suggests unforeseen danger, as ocean waves can pull people out to sea when their backs are turned. The saying, “never turn your back on the ocean” has been inverted and references the idea that madness and gender identity are intertwined.
Like her mother Betye Saar (born 1926), Lezley Saar imparts the titles of her artwork with significant meaning. Each piece, which is often a portrait, is “named” rather than “titled” and typically carries with it a short description of the figure. Lezley Saar is drawn to outcast characters that appear in literature and individuals who were forced to exist in two worlds during different historical eras. Often working in collage and painting, she mixes mythology and literature into a visual narrative. Saar often creates work about gender identity and the ways in which gender informs life experiences. Literature and historical eras, the Victorian period in particular, provide inspiration for many of her collages and paintings.