Culture: Visual Arts

Ellen Gallagher: AxMe

Ellen Gallagher

Something of a magpie, Ellen Gallagher uses many materials in her art, from vintage magazines, plasticine, wigs made of modelling clay and rubber.

In the artist’s first major retrospective in the UK, the Tate Modern show includes Gallagher’s earliest paintings as well as her later works.

There’s over 110 works to peruse, and her imagery ranges from marine organisms, advertising slogans, the Harlem Renaissance and the novels of Herman Melville.

The title AxMe is a play on the black American vernacular for ‘ask’, and is also a reference to Gallagher’s treatment of her work, she takes a metaphorical axe to the images, using a scalpel to slice and dice them.

The opening room includes some of Gallagher’s early works, and much of the base material is penmanship paper, used by children to practice handwriting. Over months and years, this material discolours, warps and changes with age.

This transformative element fascinates Gallagher, and as she explains: “It will darken with time, and that is interesting to me. It means that I don’t really have control.”

What sets Gallagher apart from other artists is her exploration of black – and specifically African American representation – in popular culture. In Negroes Ask for German Colonies, the artist arranges 20 images of women, whose heads are playfully adorned with plasticine.

The title is taken from a 1919 article by Hubert Harrison, one of the major activists of the Harlem Renaissance. His debate was whether the African colonies belonging to defeated Germany should be given to the American descendents of slaves.

Although this was a hypothetical discussion, it shone a light on the improbability of equality for African Americans – they were as likely to be the recipients of formerly owned German territories as they were to gain true equality in the United States of America.

Associated with the post-minimalists, Gallagher’s work often contains deeper meanings about race and stereotypes, particularly for African Americans.

On the surfaces of her compositions, Gallagher cuts, mounts, prints and blots to build up surfaces or scrape them away.

Keen to re-imagine black history and representation, Gallagher takes advertisements from African American magazines and manipulated the images by cutting them apart, removing text, and adding three-dimensional surfaces. In the series Watery Ecstatic, Gallagher examined history, myth, and identity. She carved sea creatures out of thick paper to mimic scrimshaw, the 19th-century art in which whalers carved animal bones to create tools and pictures.

One of the most striking images is IGBT 2008, which refers to the technological age. In an ingenious stroke, Gallagher manages to make a circuit board look like a Byzantine artefact in gold relief. In the centre of the artwork are two silhouette figures, caricatures of 17th-century dandies, who seem adrift in a universe where the ancient world meets the digital future. A potent symbol for us all.

ELLEN GALLAGHER: AxME is on at Tate Modern until 1 September 2013.

Words: Fiona Keating

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