As is often the case at art fairs, where artworks vie for the attention of eyes stimulated by so much overabundance, there is easily legible art aplenty at Art Basel Miami Beach. So it comes as a bit of respite to see standout shows that reward contemplation of the kind encouraged at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami. Betye Saar and Hugh Hayden, two artists with shows now on view, could not be more different—they are separated by multiple generations, and they work in seemingly different modes. But their work is bound by a desire to develop private mythologies while using ready-made objects. Taken together, the two shows seem to ponder how items we encounter every day can be lent new meaning.
Saar’s show, curated by Stephanie Seidel, may come as a surprise for those who are more accustomed to her work of the ’70s, which addressed sexism, racism, and combinations of the two by wresting freighted symbols from popular culture and turning them on their heads. This exhibition instead surveys Saar’s comparatively restrained installations made primarily during the ’80s. Traces of the thorny issues engaged in works such as The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), in which a racist icon used to market pancake mix was lent a rifle by Saar, reappear in more oblique ways in the later works. The legacy of slavery is mined in Gliding Into Midnight (2019), a sculpture involving a canoe filled with ceramic hands hung to hover above a diagram of a vessel used during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Shown in a darkened room, it makes clear that the violence of bygone centuries has not yet been forgotten. Yet Saar’s work is not all gloomy: Nearby Gliding Into Midnight is Oasis (1988), a sandy space dotted with beachballs that invokes the childlike glee of a family vacation.
A work like Oasis showcases just how generous Saar’s work can be. Even as they seek to unnerve, her assemblages evince an openness and willingness to accept a variety of reactions, whatever they may be. Sometimes her work includes an invitation to interact, like Wings of Morning (1992), an altar-like installation made in the wake of Saar’s mother’s death for which she invited viewers to leave trinkets as offerings. At the ICA, the work is presented with MetroCards, tiny Tabasco bottles, dollar bills, and more detritus of the everyday. In other instances, her works’ receptiveness is expressed more symbolically, often using sculptures of hands that are almost always cast upward toward the heavens.
There is a spiritual quality to much of the work, a tendency made most clear by gestures paying homage to traditions like Haitian Vodou and Santería. Rather than outright copying the iconography of such religions, Saar’s approach is to “take a little bit from each one,” as she once said. In so doing, Saar is able to infuse a spread of symbolic imagery—shooting stars, dice lit aflame, architecturally impossible towers—with meaning knowable only to herself.
Meaning takes even more oblique turns in Hayden’s show, which was curated by Alex Gartenfeld. Like Saar’s, Hayden’s work is composed often of ready-made objects, though he alters his items in ways that can be hard to determine. Pride (2021) features what seems like a children’s car seat lined with zebra hides and placed on the floor. But the wall text says it also includes an “artist’s desk chair” and a La-Z-Boy recliner. Questions about how those objects figure in the work go unanswered, but in any case Hayden refashioned a car seat in a way of his own.
A Burberry jacket features prominently in one work; cast iron skillets plated with copper that resemble faces in another. But Hayden’s stark, minimalist sculptures render a lot of the objects as dysfunctional and often rather strange. He also recombines his materials in such a way that they seem to communicate heady statements without making those statements explicit, in a tradition that includes David Hammons and Robert Gober.
A certain amount of unknowability seems to be Hayden’s preferred mode of communication, though his work occasionally takes on a political edge. Boogey Man (2021), the work that lends the show its title, features a recreation of a Ford Crown Victoria, a car commonly used by police forces in the U.S. Hayden’s car, oddly reproduced at three-quarters its typical size, is draped with white fabric, with two black holes that resemble eyes. The fabric likens the police to the Ku Klux Klan, but the piece is intriguing beyond that. When Hayden is at his best, he asks viewers to do the guesswork of understanding what the objects in his surroundings mean to him—and, by extension, to us.