Magazine article Art Monthly

Ellen Gallagher: AxME

Magazine article Art Monthly

Ellen Gallagher: AxME

Article excerpt

Tate Modern London 1 May to 1 September

Repetition can emphasise as well as negate. Repeat a word often enough and it temporarily loses its meaning. There is a tradition of US painting, which runs from Andy Warhol to Christopher Wool to Wade Guyton and Ellen Gallagher, in which negligible seeds are deconstructed by aggregation. Gallagher's contribution is distinguished by her use of cultural detritus which is as poisonous as it is cliched (although the same might be said for Warhol's imagery) and by her predisposition towards a painstakingly accretive process. Even the most apparently contingent correspondences within her mid-career retrospective at Tate Modern conform to this process of dissolution by accumulation: two of her film works have looped musical soundtracks that superimpose across the breadth of the halls into a jingly mesh in which the tunes relinquish individuality as they succumb to their maddening combination.

Gallagher's coup, in her work of the early 1990s, was to transform the homage painterly labour makes to its subjects into a critique of the values they imply. Her material consisted of signs for what she has called 'the disembodied ephemera of minstrelsy': goggle eyes, hot-dog lips and bulbous afros. She aimed to reclaim these racist ciphers as the tic-tac-toe of abstraction. Her trademark ground - a tiling of blue-lined 'penmenship' paper manufactured for handwriting exercises - associates the repetition of her tiny gestures with education, self-improvement and the nascence of language. That these grounds resemble the delicate striations of an Agnes Martin painting shows how Gallagher uses the assimilating context of mid-20th century US modernism to silence the vulgar clamour of her signs and satirise their importunate claims to convey meaning.

The pictorial virtuosity of her contemporaries Kara Walker and Chris Ofili has galvanised African-American or black British cliches into new function, but Gallagher treats her ciphers as irremediably tainted and allows them to subsist only as vestiges of a former functionality, condemned to accumulate into other signs which negate them or into a residue of the labour which inscribes them. The multitude of goggle eyes clustering on the surface of Untitled, 1992, can be related to the fragments of photographed faces in early Ofili, or the photocopied 'O's of Udomsak Krisanamis's densely accretive paintings of the 1990s. Krisanamis, a Thai, was connecting the starry skies (which the 'O's, set into their black grounds, resemble) of eastern spiritualistic imagery with the digital binary-speak of US corporate technological culture, as Gallagher links the America responsible for the vicious history behind the symbolism she adopts with that which has produced some of the greatest modernist painting. It is a conjunction that places her in a fertile limbo between her points of reference. The ambiguity of her imagery allows her to retain an autonomy from both overtly political and purely aesthetic readings.

A year later, the size and composition of Oh! Susanna, 1993, are the same, but Gallagher has added lips and blond female heads to the mix, as though to firm up the ambiguity of the eye shapes - are they rather fried eggs or auraed lamps? - by relating them to heads. Similarly, the race theme is made explicit by the contrast of blond and black. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.