Ellen Gallagher is an American artist exploring the issue of race, stereotypes and the ‘ordering principles’ that society imposes through a variety of media. Her art is created through a variety of media including painting, collage, drawing, relief, print, sculpture, film, and video. Gallagher was born in 1965 in Rhode Island. The influences of her biracial Cape Verdian and Irish Catholic heritage, as well as creative influences such as the repetitive works of the painter Agnes Martin and the writer Gertrude Stein, are evident in her work.
Gallagher’s process is often painstakingly thorough, using drawing, painting, carving, scratching and tattoo-style engraving to give her explorations using pictographs, symbols, codes and repetitions, a tactile 3D quality.
One of our favorite series, DeLuxe (2004), is a portfolio of sixty individually-framed prints hung in a rectangular grid formation comprising five rows of twelve. In this series, Gallagher takes the linear formatting from wig advertisements found in African American focused publications from the 30’s to the 70’s and repetitively modifies them. After collaging images together Gallagher added decorative elements to many of the images, sometimes referencing Afro hair by using coconut oil, gold leaf, and glitter, as well as three-dimensional elements, to build fullness onto the image and create a relief.
Some of the decorative elements used included toy eyeballs and pieces of molded colored plasticine resembling masks and hairpieces, covering models’ faces and heads. ‘Plasticine is meant to allude to [the] idea of mutability and shifting’, the artist explained. (1)
COMPLEXITIES OF RACE AND GENDER
With interventions such as covering up models’ faces and whiting out or cutting out eyes, Gallagher emphasizes the complexities surrounding the construction of identity, specifically in relation to race and gender. The artist’s use of collage to unite different parts of a range of models’ pictures and the addition of extravagant new hairstyles onto female heads advertising wigs produces unsettling juxtapositions. These transformations parody the ‘improvements’ offered by the advertisements and underscore in particular the role of hair as a signifier of difference. In one print derived from an advertisement for ‘Duke’ hair pomade, the artist covered the face of a black male model with yellow plasticine fashioned in a stylized shape suggesting an African mask. The mask that obliterates the face contrasts sharply with the model’s elegant suit and cigarette-holding hand. (2)
These modifications evoke the uniformity of such stereotypes and social expectations imposed on the black body. Throughout her work, Gallagher infuses imagery from a plethora of sources such as nature, social history, mythology, anthropology, and art, to create works that braid together her world of influences.
“What’s seen as political in [my] work is a kind of one-to-one reading of the signs as opposed to a more formal reading of the materials … I think people get overwhelmed by the super-signs of race when, in fact, my relationship to some of the more over-determined signs in the work is very tangential. What I think is more repeated than that in the work is a kind of mutability and moodiness to the signs … And I think that’s where you can talk about race in my work … that idea of the abstract ‘I’ … what it means to look at somebody who was eighteen in 1939 … whatever she was. That’s specificity. It’s impossible to know who that was. But try anyway to have some kind of imaginative space with that sign … Sometimes it’s hard for people who don’t make things to understand labor, joy, attention, and whimsy. But it’s in the work – I don’t think it’s something I need to explain.” – Ellen Gallagher (Ellen Gallagher Interview: eXelento and DeLuxe)
“I think of that Leigh Bowery quote, ‘I’m not ready to go out until it hurts.’ Isn’t that good?” She laughs. “I just feel like there’s something so wicked and funny about that – it’s gotta hurt!” (1)
Gallagher’s work has been exhibited extensively around the world: Tate Modern, London, Drawing Center, Gagosian Gallery and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, among others. She has received esteemed recognition in the art world, winning awards such as the American Academy Award in Art in 2000. She is represented by Gagosian Gallery, New York and Hauser & Wirth, London, and currently livesbetween New York and Rotterdam, Holland.
See more on Ellen Gallagher in this episode of Bloomberg’s Brilliant Ideas.