Not on view
Ceiling tin, nails and copper
Overall: 82 1/2 × 83 7/8 × 2 1/2in. (209.6 × 213 × 6.4 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee
Rights and reproductions
© Alison Saar
A spread-eagled, larger-than-life human form fixed to the wall with fifty-three nails, Skin/Deep is a brutal image of a flayed body seen from behind that evokes the horrors of torture. Made in response to the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department, its referential scope extends to generations of individuals who have been subjected to physical hurt or psychic harm as a result of their skin color. The work’s material—old stamped ceiling tin—has an informal quality that, like the grotesque, defenseless appearance of the figure itself, is made to seem intentionally out of place in a museum context. Alison Saar draws on personal experience (she is of mixed-race heritage) as well as her research into representations of racial stereotypes to investigate how attributions of racial identity can expose unexamined prejudices, often to painful, damaging effect. Nevertheless, Skin/Deep may come with a subtle message of salvation and healing: not only does the figure recall a crucifix, but its flattened form also echoes the stamped metal retablos, often representing body parts, which are used in certain Latin American Catholic traditions to ward off afflictions.
Alison Saar, Skin/Deep, 1993
From Human Interest
Alison Saar, Skin/Deep, 1993
Alison Saar: This is Alison Saar. I'm the artist that created Skin/Deep in 1993.
Generally, I use ceiling tin or the pressed metal tin to clad my sculptures. It's always been a material that I saw as a skin. In this case, it has been flayed off of the figures. When I usually use it on figures, it also feels like an armor. The material itself being metal has a sort of protective quality. I think this piece in particular, where it has been taken off of the figure and nailed on to the wall, it talks about the vulnerability, and the vulnerability of skin at the same time.
When I made this piece, I think I was pregnant with my second child, and it became a point where I just couldn't watch the news. We had the Rodney King beatings. Then there was a young man from Brooklyn, Christopher Wilson, who had gone down to Tampa and had been abducted and doused with gasoline and set afire. It seemed every time I turned on the news, it was open season on black males. It was a frightening time, I think, having a son, and just seeing the way the world was responding to people of color.
That's what really got me doing these pieces. I think, in general, my work really wants to not only give dignity to the figures that I create, but also strength. I think that this is the first piece I've done that really was a straight out victim and vulnerable.
I think part of that was a really angry response, and actually a really frightened response to the news that was being broadcasted nightly on our television sets. Sadly, it's still as apropos twenty years later. I think it's interesting that now with access to public media, that a lot of these things that had been going on for [laughs] centuries, basically, are more visible.