Ellen Gallagher has for many years attempted to construct an alternate reality for her viewers, as much as for herself. In her recent exhibit, Greasy, she continues this pursuit, attempting a hybrid of the Harlem Renaissance’s New Negro movement with a slacker form of High Modernism. Her dogged attempts at unification are inspiring, if only because she brings into our grasp a sense of the urgency that her subject matter, as well as painting, means to her.
Belief is firstly an act of willful imagining. It is what imagination is called when we create an object or system which is greater than ourselves; it develops an internal power or authority.
When we look at the work of art and say, "That’s a Rembrandt!" or "That’s a Picasso," we have given ourselves proof that we have fallen under the sway of this idea. The artwork embodies the artist to the point of corporeal replacement. Few artists have shown their development with as much naked abandon as Gallagher. Her "schooling" in art was always laid bare on the canvas: lined writing paper, lumps of children"s clay, button eyes—these were the tools and stuff of her craft. At the same time they were the product she transformed into art, a highly idiosyncratic art, of course, with weird Steppin Fetchit faces, '60s Afro 'dos, and collaged fragments of old magazines. Schoolgirl stuff, of a highly precocious order.
There is in Gallagher's work a search for identity, beyond what at first seems a rather politically correct 90s version of identity art. Gallagher instead explodes the signs of the body and treats them as words—carefully repeating images over and over, like Bart Simpson at the chalkboard. Here, though in some of her works she has upped the ante, in IGBT (2008) she riffs off of Kara Walker’s silhouettes, but adds an iconic edge with gilded, circuit-like background—transporting her bodily fragments, Osiris-like, into a shadowy realm. Previously, her fragmented body (eyes, lips, hair, etc.) was a sublimated commentary on disenfranchisement; here we find her finally reassembling the components (hence solid-state background?) into some form of completion. Yet not quite whole, as the emptiness of the silhouetted form implies. Conventionally those who control "power" (read white/male/conservative) are said to be “represented”; those without access to it are "without representation." Gallagher treads carefully here. As one who is in control of a great deal of power (both with regard to her talent as well as her "representation" in the art world) she depicts her figures in abstentia, by presenting them through their absence. Yet to have no body, no corporeal limits, is to possess form still. Without bodily pain, wounding, and death, one’s sphere of influence is less contracted. This may be what Gallagher’s fragmented beings have been aligning to all along.
Coming together, finally, yet not quite whole, is something Stanley Crouch has touched upon in his brilliant recent essays on art and Blues music. When comparing Michelangelo to the fragmentary nature of Blues and Jazz he writes:
"I circled Michelangelo’s unfinished Pieta in the museum behind the Duomo, fascinated by the possibilities for style it suggested. Its mix of the finished and the unfinished gives the impression of an intersection between realism and expressionism, between living flesh, dead flesh, and the spirit."
It may be Gallagher's Morphia series of drawings that best expresses her desire to transcend the literal moment—drawings which are worked through from both sides of the sheet. Though reminiscent of Sigmar Polke's drawings in the 80s, in which resin-infused papers allowed the overdrawing to show through both sides simultaneously, these pieces allow Gallagher to riff off of a single note, so to speak. They also speak to a need, psychologically for her to unify her iconography, without fully committing herself to a single image. Whereas IGBT brings us to a marriage of idea and image, these pieces tease, letting us decide how to interpret them. While a huge leap from her school-days lessons, they still don’t bring us to the communion of viewer and image that is the center of this show. Perhaps, instead of a criticism, we should view this as a mark of the seriousness and import of her project. Though art is often a leap of faith, it is of more importance that we believe in it. And with Gallagher's work we do. - Bradley Rubenstein
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.