What is crucial to my making of a language and a cosmology of signs is the type of repetition that is central to a lot of the music I am listening to right now. . . . I start off with a limited class of signs and, like stacking in music, I chop and revisit the changes to build structure.
Through processes of accretion, erasure, and extraction, Ellen Gallagher has invented a densely saturated visual language in which overlapping patterns, motifs, and materials pulse with life. By fusing narrative modes including poetry, film, music, and collage, she recalibrates the tensions between reality and fantasy—unsettling designations of race and nation, art and artifact, and allowing the familiar and the arcane to converge.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Gallagher attended Oberlin College, Ohio; artist Michael Skop’s private art school Studio 70; the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (graduating in 1992 and receiving a traveling scholar award in 1993); and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine (1993). Her interests in these years spanned across disciplines and time periods, including oceanography, microscopic life, popular media, the poetics of Black vernacular language, and the formal geometries of postwar abstraction. In her first major body of work, made in the mid-1990s, Gallagher applied penmanship paper to canvas in uneven grids, filling the pages with small repeated pairs of stylized lips that she both drew and printed in blue ink. These works thus hinged the aesthetics of 1960s Minimalism to racist minstrelsy and blackface physiognomy. Other biomorphic forms (eyes, tongues, and hair) appear in abstract clusters throughout her oeuvre.
In 1998 Gallagher produced a small group of black monochromatic paintings as a direct response to the critical interpretations of her previous works. Starting again with squares of paper on canvas, she added more geometric shapes, creating a textured terrain that she built up with cut rubber. She further inscribed and collaged aleatory motifs from mid-century American race magazines and other sources, then painted the canvas in layers of black enamel. With this thick, reflective surface, Gallagher suggests that the psychosis of race relations is embedded in the history of Western abstraction.
Gallagher was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Art in 2000 and began her ongoing Watery Ecstatic (2001–) series the following year. In Watery Ecstatic, she invents complex biomorphic forms that she relates to the mythical Drexciya, an undersea kingdom populated by the women and children who were the tragic casualties of the transatlantic slave trade. Cutting into thick paper in her own version of scrimshaw—the practice of carving whale bones—Gallagher invests the afterlives of the Middle Passage with a sense of material control, her intense focus giving rise to new peripheries. Drexciya is featured again in Gallagher’s film installation Murmur (2003–04), made in collaboration with Dutch artist Edgar Cleijne. Combining celluloid film with computer animation, Gallagher and Cleijne developed an aesthetic that emerges from the intersection of archival sources, fiction, and memory.
In the multipart works eXelento (2004), Afrylic (2004), and DeLuxe (2004–05), black-and-white images pulled from archival magazines—issues of Ebony, Sepia, and Our World from 1939 to 1972—are digitally scanned, recombined, and overlaid with Plasticine, velvet, googly eyes, and oil. Many of the found images are advertisements for slimming aids, underwear, hair relaxers, wigs, and skin bleaching creams targeted to African American women. DeLuxe was the subject of Gallagher’s solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 2004–05.
In 2006 Gallagher made Bird in Hand, a large-scale, mixed-media canvas depicting a black pirate or sailor holding a parrot, with amorphic swirls around his head transforming into multicolored kelp-like shapes. Inspired by both Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and the Cape Verde archipelago, the protagonist in the painting, “Pegleg,” is a recurring character in Gallagher’s art, combining her long-standing interest in underwater forms with her critical engagement with the history of Cape Verde, where her father’s parents were born.
From 2008 to 2012 Gallagher worked on Morphia, a series of double-sided drawings displayed in custom glass and metal cabinets, in which representations of transformed artifacts merge with marine imagery to create transparent palimpsests resembling stroma or organic matter. As they mutate and congeal, microbial patterns seem to convey a certain euphoria, a narcotic state suggested by the series title.
In 2010, for the Whitney Biennial, Gallagher and Cleijne created Better Dimension, an installation in which the outer walls of a large room were silkscreened with writings by Afrofuturist pioneer Sun Ra, the Martian canals of Percival Lowell, as well as the long legs of singer and bassist Shingai Shoniwa. Inside the room, projections showed syncopated sequences of painted glass slides and John F. Kennedy’s head rotating above a black vinyl LP. Three years later, in 2013, AxME opened at the Tate Modern, London and traveled to the Sara Hildén Art Museum, Finland, and Haus der Kunst, Munich; Don’t Axe Me opened at the New Museum, New York, that same year.
In the film installation Highway Gothic (2017), Gallagher collaborated with Cleijne again, examining the impact that Interstate 10 is having on people and nature in the Southern United States. Originating at Prospect.4 in New Orleans, Highway Gothic has continued to develop and was included in solo exhibitions of Gallagher’s work at Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, and the Power Plant, Toronto, in 2018.
Synthesizing a wide range of pictorial traditions, and working across national borders, Gallagher counters static representations of Black Being and allows both abstraction and figuration to become portals to a world in which subject becomes form—as reality and dreams combine.
Nina Simone, Our National Treasure
Text by Salamishah Tillet.
Visions of the Self: Jenny Saville on Rembrandt
Jenny Saville reveals the process behind her new self-portrait, painted in response to Rembrandt’s masterpiece Self-Portrait with Two Circles.
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019
The Summer 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher on its cover.
Gagosian Quarterly Spring 2019
The Spring 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Red Pot with Lute Player #2 by Jonas Wood on its cover.
Below the Surface
Ellen Gallagher in conversation with Adrienne Edwards.
Alone on the Infinite Sea: Ellen Gallagher’s Lips Sink
Philip Hoare, author of The Whale and The Sea Inside, creates a narrative about Ellen Gallagher’s newest lithograph, Lips Sink.
Nina Simone Childhood Home
May 12–22, 2023
This online auction is part of a multifaceted fundraiser to benefit the Nina Simone Childhood Home Preservation Project. Spearheaded by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the project aims to fully restore and maintain the birthplace of musical icon and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Cocurated by artist Adam Pendleton and the tennis champion, entrepreneur, and arts patron Venus Williams, the auction—hosted by Sotheby’s—features work by international artists, including Ellen Gallagher, Sarah Sze, Mary Weatherford, and Stanley Whitney.
Sarah Sze, Spell, 2023 © Sarah Sze
Michael Armitage, Manthia Diawara, Ellen Gallagher
Moderated by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Friday, June 17, 2022, 5pm
Hall 1 Auditorium, Messeplatz, Basel
Conceived and moderated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Art Basel Conversations: Artists’ Influencers series brings together artists with individuals who have had a significant effect on their practices. For this program, artists Michael Armitage and Ellen Gallagher and writer and filmmaker Manthia Diawara meet to consider the development of artistic kinships. The event is free to attend in person or online at facebook.com.
Left: Michael Armitage. Photo: George Darrell © White Cube. Middle: Manthia Diawara. Right: Ellen Gallagher. Photo: Philippe Vogelenzang
Dhaka Art Summit
February 7–15, 2020
Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka
William Forsythe and Ellen Gallagher are participating in Dhaka Art Summit 2020: Seismic Movements. Over nine days, five hundred artists, scholars, curators, and thinkers will join in panel discussions, performances, and symposia addressing the theme: “What is a movement and how do we ignite one beyond the confines of an art exhibition?” The event is free and open to the public.
Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Osedax, 2010 (still) © Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher
Ellen Gallagher in
In the Black Fantastic
November 19, 2022–April 10, 2023
Kunsthal Rotterdam, Netherlands
In the Black Fantastic explores the work of eleven contemporary artists from the African diaspora who draw on science fiction, myth, and Afrofuturism to question our knowledge of the world. In this exhibition, which includes painting, photography, video, sculpture, and mixed-media installations, fantasy becomes a zone of creative and cultural liberation and a means of addressing racism and social injustice by conjuring new ways of being in the world. This exhibition has traveled from the Hayward Gallery in London. Work by Ellen Gallagher is included.
Ellen Gallagher, Watery Ecstatic, 2021 © Ellen Gallagher
Ellen Gallagher in
Les Portes du Possible: Art & Science-Fiction
November 5, 2022–April 10, 2023
Centre Pompidou-Metz, France
This exhibition, whose title translates to A Gateway to Possible Worlds: Art & Science Fiction, brings together more than two hundred works from the late 1960s to the present day. Art and science fiction whisk visitors away to a sci-fi realm that spotlights the bonds between imaginary worlds and reality with the help of artists, authors, architects, and film directors. Both fields build on the demands for twenty-first-century utopias to spark debate, inspiration, and hope. Work by Ellen Gallagher is included.
Ellen Gallagher, Watery Ecstatic, 2007 © Ellen Gallagher
Whitney Biennial 2022
Quiet as It’s Kept
April 6–October 16, 2022
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
The Whitney Biennial was established in 1932 by the museum’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, to chart developments in art in the United States. The 2022 Biennial presents dynamic selections that take different forms over the course of the exhibition: artworks—even walls—change, and performance animates the galleries and objects. With an intergenerational and interdisciplinary roster of sixty-three artists and collectives at all points in their careers, many of whom work with an interdisciplinary perspective, the Biennial surveys and presents the art and ideas of our time. Work by Harold Ancart, Ellen Gallagher, Cy Gavin, and Rick Lowe is included.
Harold Ancart, The Guiding Light, 2021, installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York © Harold Ancart. Photo: Ryan Lowry
Ellen Gallagher in
In the Black Fantastic
June 29–September 18, 2022
Hayward Gallery, London
In the Black Fantastic explores the work of eleven contemporary artists from the African diaspora who draw on science fiction, myth, and Afrofuturism to question our knowledge of the world. In this exhibition, which includes painting, photography, video, sculpture, and mixed-media installations, fantasy becomes a zone of creative and cultural liberation and a means of addressing racism and social injustice by conjuring new ways of being in the world. Work by Ellen Gallagher is included.
Installation view, In the Black Fantastic, Hayward Gallery, London, June 29–September 18, 2022. Artwork © Ellen Gallagher