The Ellen Gallagher pieces that make up the more recent stages of her career appear darker, straying away from grids, and more abstract compared to her former set that draws on imagery from the African-American history of minstrelsy. These earlier works carry brighter pastels and the repetition of bulging eyes and lips as well as wigs, or the removal of wigs and eyes from Ebony ads then replaced with yellow Plasticine and white paint.
Gallagher is part African-American and part Irish-American, and though she deals with African history, her choice to work with vintage Ebony and Sepia magazine material has least to do with their target audience. Rather the artist was drawn to their layouts, and the way advertisement sections were divided into “haphazard grids.” Gallagher’s eye for composition is what appealed to me, too.
A good example is Skinnatural, 1997. She sections the black and white magazine page into two halves: style ad women on the left and rows of over 50 pairs of bug eyes on the right. The left is further split into grids, where Gallagher creates black eye masks for the different-sized pictures of women’s hairdo. The piece currently hangs at the New Museum where the artist takes up two floors— the third and the fourth.
Make sure to catch the enclave of carefully hand-cut paper marks of seawater creatures on your way upstairs. Originally from Rhode Island, Gallagher divides her studio time between New York and Rotterdam, and the influence of the port city is evident in these “Watery Ecstatic” series while they are also an imagining of the underwater realm of Drexciya—a fictional civilization built by slaves who lost their lives on the journey from Africa to the Americas during the Middle Passage.
Equally impressive is the 24 2/5 by 35 2/5 inch photogravure “Abu Simbel.” With a spaceship adorned in blue fur and the face of Sun Ra collated over one of the Egyptian monuments, it suggests a reappropriation of the jazz musician’s 1972 movie, Space Is The Place. Through the rearrangement of materials in their art, what these two artists share in common is a setting that defies the restrictions imposed by science, history and language.
Upstairs, if you look at the paintings long enough, you’ll realize the shapes aren’t that abstract as they form into birds and tender branches, even a white whale. The technique in these newest pieces appear to be the same as in her old pieces where Gallagher applies layers, cutouts and insertions. Also hard to miss is Gallagher’s film installation inside of an angular dome, done in collaboration with her life partner, Edgar Cleijn. It’s called Osedax, and is a film of a shipwreck at a beach. Shot with a 16-millimeter camera, the stock includes intricate paintings of glass slides, and plays out like a journey of a bird underwater, sometimes in its perspective.