Ellen Gallagher (American, b.1965) is a painter, collagist, printmaker, film and video artist. She was born in Providence, RI. She studied writing at Oberlin College, OH, from 1982 to 1984, and attended Studio 70, in Fort Thomas, KY, in 1989. She earned a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, MA in 1992. While attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Gallagher joined (and later became the art coordinators) at the Darkroom Collective, a group of poets living and working out of Inman Square in Cambridge, MA. The experience was pivotal to her career because the performers and the audience were bi-racial. In1993 she received a scholarship and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in ME. Her background is bi-racial. Her father was born in the United States, of West African (Cape Verde) roots. Her mother’s background was Caucasian Irish Catholic.
Minimalist Abstract Art
Critics say her aesthetic has been influenced by the Minimalist style of paintings by Agnes Martin.Gallagher’s works, however, look at issues of race, identity and transformation and reference blackface and minstrelsy, by scattering tiny caricatures of eyes and mouths across creamy expanses of Penmanship paper on canvas. The works are large, seeming abstract, cool and Minimal from a distance, but – up close – confront the viewer with Gallagher’s social commentary about race. It’s a brilliant confrontation.
The image above, titled Afro Mountain (1994), is ink and collaged paper on canvas, 84 x 72 inches, collection: the Whitney Museum of American Art. Afro Mountain is considered an example of minimalist abstract art and includes penmanship paper glued to a canvas with ink drawings of lips that overtake the entire bottom half of the large canvas. Afro Mountain was included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial.
The image (above) is a close-up view of Afro Mountain, showing Gallagher’s repetitive drawings of lips, seen in the lower half of the work.
The image above shows Ellen Gallagher at work on a photo-etching on a metal plate.
There’s an excellent interview of Ellen Gallagher posted at Art21 in which the artist responds to questions about two works titled “eXelento” and “DeLuxe.” She discussed how she collected and archived materials from black photo journals dated from 1939 to 1972, including magazines like Our World, Sepia and Ebony – saying she was first attracted to the wig advertisements that had a grid-like structure – but, at the same time, said she was unable to identify with the images of the young women models. This interview was originally published on PBS.org in September 2005 and was republished on Art21.org in November 2011.
The image above is titled DeLuxe (2004–5) 60 parts, photogravure and collage, arranged in five rows of twelve. Overall: 84 x 175 inches. Gallagher began DeLuxe by collecting advertisements for hair straightening products, wigs, and stockings from mid-century black magazines. She cut and pasted the facial features and blocks of text into collages, then turned the collages into flat, seamless photogravures, and then altered the photogravures, coloring them in, adding Plasticine wigs and masks, and attaching adornments such as beads, rhinestones and gold leaf.
Gallagher said: “The wig ladies are fugitives, conscripts from another time and place, liberated from the ‘race’ magazines of the past…I have transformed them from the pages that once held them captive…” Gallagher has also described the array of characters as a “procession” to suggest parallels between their transformation and historical costumed pageants such as W.E.B. Dubois’s Star of Ethiopia 1913, in which hundreds of participants enacted the glories of a series of African civilizations from ancient Egypt and Sudan up to the tragedy of slavery.”
DeLuxe addresses the complex role hair plays in African and African-American culture as a means of ornament, adornment and personal expression – a signifier of cultural identify and difference, and a talisman for both strength and protection. Read more here.
The image above is titled eXelento (2004), Plasticine, ink and paper on canvas, 96 x 192 inches, photo courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, NY. The image was photographed from the side, and you can see the yellow Plasticine wig additions are dimensional.
The image above is titled DY-NO-Mite (1995), oil, pencil and paper on canvas, 84 x 72 inches, collection: the Denver Art Museum, Colorado. I saw this work in person when it showed in New York.
The image above is titled Oh! Susanna, dated 1995 (one of several works by the artist with the same title), and includes pasted penmanship papers on canvas with drawing of eyes and lips in a dark strip along the top. The title relates to Stephen Foster’s minstrel song Oh! Susanna, a song that was originally a slave lament about families being ripped apart. The words were later adapted to reflect the loneliness of settlers heading west during the California Gold Rush (1848) and the race element is erased, as it becomes an American song of loss. A very specific loss became a universal loss once race was removed.
Liquid Intelligence – Watery Ecstatic
The image above shows a 16 mm film still titled Highway Gothic (2017) that Ellen Gallagher co-created with Edgar Cleijne, a Dutch photographer and film artist for a current exhibition, titled Liquid Intelligence showing now at WIELS, Contemporary Art Center, Brussels (through April 28, 2019). The exhibition reflects on watery transformations of landscapes and worlds populated with micro-organisms and submarine life forms – and the mythical stories of the African diaspora. The exhibition also presents Gallagher’s paintings, drawings and collages done over the past 20 years.
A Watery BACKSTORY
In 1986, while she was an undergraduate student in Boston, MA, Gallagher enrolled in SEA Semester out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts with a group of students to study celestial navigation and oceanography on a sailboat in the Caribbean. She chose a research project about pterapods – wing-footed snails. She discovered they were practically microscopic and that meant she was on board a sailboat collecting these creatures at night and then looking at them under a microscope in daytime and trying to make drawings. Making the drawings led to her becoming an artist. The sailboat experience took place in Martinique, and, for Gallagher, represented a coalescence of two cultures – she said it felt like a first time in Africa.
The image above is titled Watery Ecstatic (2001), ink, oil, watercolor, pencil and cut and pasted paper on paper, 22 x 29 ½ inches. Gallagher made this image by scratching and carving into thick paper andcompares her scratching, cutting process to 19th century scrimshaw, where whalers and sailors carved intricate patterns into bones, teeth and tusks of marine animals.
All her works are thoughtful. For Gallagher, process and concept are intertwined. She is a brilliant artist – fascinating and complex. See the WEILS Contemporary Art Center installation here.