When we first meet Topsy in the pages of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the enslaved young girl grins, "goblin-like," and repeatedly professes her wickedness. She embodies blackness to her young mistress Eva's whiteness; she plays devil to Eva's saint, base earth to Eva's ethereal spirit. She comes into the St. Clare family as a civilizing project, a heathen to be educated, tamed, Christianized.
When we encounter the sculpted Topsy in Alison Saar's vital show at L.A. Louver, she bristles with self-possession. The "sundry little tails" of her "woolly hair," emblems in the novel of her wild, chaotic nature, have been rendered as wire twists radiating from her head like a spiky halo of energy.
In one arresting piece, the chiseled and tarred wood figure stands with a sickle in one hand and a gold-leafed shock of hair in the other. Saar makes Topsy at once into the mythic Jason returning with the Golden Fleece, a warrior announcing her conquest via bloody scalp, and a distorted echo of the little girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, treasuring the golden lock granted her by Eva upon her deathbed.
Image: An installation shot of five sculptures by Alison Saar: "Rice" (sickle), "Cotton" (bale hook), "Indigo" (hoe), "Sugar Cane" (machete), "Tobacco" (tobacco knife) all 2018, made of wood, copper, ceiling tin, bronze, tar and vintage found tools. (Jeff McLane / L.A. Louver)