Ellen Gallagher: AxME

by rebeccaswirsky

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Posted: 30 July 2013 by Rebecca Swirsky

It is fair to say that Ellen Gallagher is a strong woman producing strong art. The Tate Modern’s large rooms feel appropriately airy for this, Gallagher’s first major retrospective in the UK. Covering 20 years of her career and including works never before seen by the public, disembodied ‘golliwog’ eyes and lips collectively float through the rooms, their presence commenting on views of blackness as seen through a white gaze.

Ellen Gallagher, ‘So Fun from Deluxe’, 2004.
Ellen Gallagher, ‘So Fun from Deluxe’, 2004. © Ellen Gallagher.

Gallagher’s retrospective’s subtitle, AxME, works in two ways: as a reference to the ‘Acme Corporation’ – the fictional company supplying Wile E Coyote with booby traps for Road Runner – and as a play on the black American vernacular for ‘ask’. It’s this awareness of race and fraught-with-power distinctions of ‘Otherness’ that eddies through Gallagher’s works, an undercurrent that flows with Gallagher’s interests in popular culture, modernism, education, language and oceanography. She speaks of a ‘cosmology of signs with the type of repetition that is central to jazz’, and her densely layered, multi-medium output contains harmonies and riffs which echo through the exhibition.

In her ‘black paintings’ (1998–2002), bloated lips, bulging eyes and dancing figures appear trapped inside the black, almost oil-slick surface, secrets freed to the viewer when light flashes on the surface. Gallagher comments that they are “a kind of refusal. Even when reading them – if you stand in front of them they go blank and then if you stand at the side you see only a little.” From canvas to canvas in this series Gallagher has created a collective rumbling from the deep, an uncanny human presence possessing a taut refusal to be held down.

Ellen Gallagher, ‘Bird in Hand’, 2006.
Ellen Gallagher, ‘Bird in Hand’, 2006. © Ellen Gallagher.

Bird in Hand (2006) displays the signs and signifiers of Afro-Caribbean culture sent into unexpected places. A bellicose-looking Captain Ahab from Melville’s Moby Dick has merged with Peg Leg Bates, a one-legged acrobatic tap dancer famous on the vaudeville circuit. Paint, plasticine, newspaper advertisements for beauty products, gold leaf and rough rock crystal have been used to create the phantasmagorical figure. The pirate’s extravagant afro spirals up and out to become the tendrils and leaves of a tree. Through its dense physical layering of materials, Bird in Hand pushes forward away from the wall, meeting the viewer halfway in an surreal twist of energy.

Notably, ‘race’ and ‘identity’ are words rarely used in the exhibition’s accompanying literature. These are intriguing semantic exclusions given that Gallagher began as a writing student before switching to fine art. Perhaps that’s the point. To risk oversimplifying or reducing Gallagher’s work as being just about race would be to negate its powerful multi-positional richness. For ‘Ellen Gallagher: AxMe’ is a retrospective at once many things – phantasmagorical, poetic, symbolically rich, technically proficient, but above all intelligently, thoughtfully, seductive.

Ellen Gallagher: AxME is at Tate until 1 September 2013

Rebecca Swirsky is a London-based critic and short-fiction writer