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.
June 5–July 27, 2019
January 22–February 26, 2011
West 24th Street, New York
September 14–October 23, 2004
West 24th Street, New York
March 10–April 14, 2001
West 24th Street, New York
March 7–April 11, 1998
Wooster Street, New York
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.
Art Basel Unlimited 2019
Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Duane Hanson, Steven Parrino, Giuseppe Penone, Tom Wesselmann
June 13–16, 2019, hall 1.1
Gagosian is pleased to announce that works by Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Duane Hanson, Steven Parrino, Giuseppe Penone, and Tom Wesselmann have been selected for Art Basel Unlimited 2019, curated by Gianni Jetzer. Launched in 2000, Unlimited is an exhibition platform for exciting large-scale works that transcend the limits of the standard art fair booth. The five artworks are:
Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Highway Gothic, 2017–19
Duane Hanson, Lunchbreak, 1989
Steven Parrino, 13 Shattered Panels (for Joey Ramone), 2001
Giuseppe Penone, Cedro di Versailles (Cedar of Versailles), 2000–03
Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #60, 1973
Art Basel 2019
June 13–16, 2019, booth C9
Gagosian is pleased to participate in Art Basel, presenting works by Georg Baselitz, Joe Bradley, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Urs Fischer, Ellen Gallagher, Alberto Giacometti, Katharina Grosse, Mark Grotjahn, Jeff Koons, Man Ray, Albert Oehlen, Pablo Picasso, Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, Mary Weatherford, Tom Wesselmann, and Franz West, among others.
Jeff Koons, Sacred Heart (Magenta/Gold), 1994–2007 © Jeff Koons
Ellen Gallagher, Dalilla Hermans, Melat Nigussie
Wednesday, March 20, 2019, 8pm
Wiels, Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels
Ellen Gallagher will speak with writers Dalilla Hermans and Melat Nigussie in conjunction with her current exhibition at Wiels, Liquid Intelligence. The talk will be moderated by Aimée-Fidèle Mukunde. The event is free with museum admission. Register at www.wiels.org.
Installation view, Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: Liquid Intelligence, Wiels, Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, February 2–April 28, 2019. Artwork © Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher
Through November 1, 2019
Tate Modern, London
Ellen Gallagher, Esirn Coaler, 2007 © Ellen Gallagher
Ellen Gallagher in
Through November 3, 2019
Johann Jacobs Museum, Zurich
World Exhibition aims to bring into focus the interspaces and interdependencies at the heart of historical and contemporary objects, films, and works of art, as well as a number of things that actually elude identification altogether. Work by Ellen Gallagher is included.
Ellen Gallagher, Kapsalon Wonder, 2015 © Ellen Gallagher
Contemporary Drawing from 1970 to Now
Through January 12, 2020
British Museum, London
Celebrating drawing in its own right, rather than its historic role as preparatory to painting, this exhibition explores how contemporary artists have used drawing to examine themes including identity, place, and memory. Work by Glenn Brown, Ellen Gallagher, Anselm Kiefer, and Rachel Whiteread is included.
Rachel Whiteread, Pink, 1993 © Rachel Whiteread
Ellen Gallagher in
Beyond Infinity: Contemporary Art after Kusama
Through February 7, 2021
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
This exhibition provides visitors with a deeper understanding of how the immersive environment of Yayoi Kusama’s LOVE IS CALLING (2013) embodies the artist’s long-standing exploration of accumulation, repetition, luminescence, life and death, and happenings. Works featuring Kusama’s obsessive repetition of symbols, patterns, and forms are paired with works by contemporaries as well as those by current practitioners such as Ellen Gallagher.
Ellen Gallagher, Untitled, 1995 © Ellen Gallagher