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History and Drag
Ellen Gallagher in Conversation with Cheryl Kaplan



Her works combine formal austerity, an examination of African American history, and subversive wit. For over a decade, the American Ellen Gallagher has been attracting international attention with her drawings and paintings. Cheryl Kaplan had a talk with her about children’s games, one-legged comedians, and fatal experiments.




Ellen Gallagher, from the series "DeLuxe", 2005,
Deutsche Bank Collection, © Ellen Gallagher, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zürich London

Ellen Gallagher has been living near ports most of her life. Currently, she splits her time between Rotterdam and New York, where she’s been exhibiting at Gagosian Gallery since 1998. In 1995, Gallagher rose to quick acclaim at the Whitney Biennial. Her best-known works, drawings like Preserve, DeLuxe, and her large-scale paintings, include archival imagery generated from magazines like Ebony, an influential lifestyle magazine created in 1945 for the African American market. Ebony broke cultural ground and included advertising that featured black models driving cars, using hair products, and drinking soft drinks.

Gallagher’s paintings and drawings feature complex and quirky interventions, like a series of plasticine floating eyes or re-configured wigs that sit surprisingly on top of advertisements. Her visual commentary annotates the past and infiltrates the language and behavior promised in the ads. In Mr. Terrific, Gallagher has outfitted the protagonist of a hair cream ad with a wild yellow wig hat that also doubles as a mask. The ad promises that "Johnson’s Ultra Wave will make you really proud of your hair." In this case, the products invented by Johnson were created by George E. Johnson, not Johnson & Johnson . In 1971, Johnson Products would become the first Black-owned corporation listed on the American Stock Exchange. In creating imagery that draws from both a real and invented archive, Gallagher escalates the advertising "promise" presented as a cultural "truth," letting the viewer confront and re-examine misinformation.



Ellen Gallagher, eXelento, 2004 (detail),
Courtesy Gagosian Gallery


Ellen Gallagher, from the series "DeLuxe", 2005,
Deutsche Bank Collection, © Ellen Gallagher, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zürich London


Gallagher’s work is about American identity and how that identity is confounded, then "straightened out" and often left in conflict. Her work strikes back to the Middle Passage , the longest and most dangerous journey slave ships took from the West Coast of Africa, where slaves were boarded under the worst conditions and sent across the Atlantic to be sold and traded.


The tension in Gallagher’s paintings and drawings gains its strength through a gentle, but tough volley between Minimalism’s austere lines and Gallagher’s lexicon of archival images. "When I listen to techno or hip hop, I think of jazz. It’s all about minimalism…by way of jazz. It’s all very spare and very hard. When you think of Donald Judd, you can also think about Miles Davis." While Minimalism is about the relationship of materials, space and the viewer, Gallagher’s relationship to this movement and to jazz allows for unusual visual eruptions. Her delicate grid structures have the touch of an Agnes Martin line and the unflinching determination of a Minimalist grid. Gallagher teases the surface of her work, using a process of omission and addition to burrow in, as she retrieves and re-directs information. She invokes characters, some historically based and others irreparably altered. Her cast is active and agile, letting Gallagher doggedly pursue schisms in human behavior.

Cheryl Kaplan: The Preserve drawings use plasticine forms. The shapes reminded me of Colorforms, a child’s game made of vinyl in bright, saturated colors that peeled off and stuck to a figure. I used to stack up fifty Colorforms on top of each other.

Ellen Gallagher: A friend and I made clothes out of paper, stapling layers to dolls. They’d look like Boli figures – African objects built from accumulation and ritual.



Ellen Gallagher, "DeLuxe", 2005,
Deutsche Bank Collection, © Ellen Gallagher, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zürich London

In using the plasticine wigs, you adjust a pre-existing image, respecting or violating the form.

What appears to be a magazine page is always altered. I begin with an archive used first in Preserve, where the literalness of the page was important; then it developed into Falls and Flips (2001). The paintings are built with a grid, but unlike the mute 1960s grid of minimalism, my grid refers to map-making or a navigational chart; it activates the space. I’ll enlarge details or cut them until they’re seamless, making a fake ad or using real ads, scanning them so you can’t tell the difference between the original and the alteration. The surgeries are about invasion and abstraction.


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