Ellen Gallagher- ‘AxMe’ at Tate Modern

Ellen Gallagher Bird in Hand 2006 Oil, ink, paper, polymer, salt, gold leaf on canvas support: 2383 x 3072 mm Presented anonymously 2007© Ellen Gallagher
Ellen Gallagher
Bird in Hand 2006
Oil, ink, paper, polymer, salt, gold leaf on canvas
support: 2383 x 3072 mm
Presented anonymously 2007© Ellen Gallagher

By Emily Watkins

Ellen Gallagher: AxME
Tate Modern
1 May – 1 September 2013

The Tate Modern’s retrospective of Ellen Gallagher explores natural organisms, music and race. Lacking coherent theme, the artist’s attention to surface qualities and materiality links together a show which varied widely in thematic content.

Bringing a fresh approach to collage and painting, Gallagher introduces familiar materials– children’s modelling material and school paper– that represent her gender and references the experience of women as primary care givers. Through inherent playfulness, and original use of materials, Gallagher’s art simultaneously challenges both the rules of the art world and art tradition, creating the opportunity for new visual dialogues to develop.

Gallagher’s ethnic background also adds to the layers of cultural influences on this body of work. Yet, although she has used her cultural experiences to build up her visual language the resulting body of work goes beyond the exploration of ethnicity and gender and the range of thematic concerns makes it difficult for her to be pigeon-holed.

A painted wooden artefact which looms large in the first room, is reminiscent of an African tribal artefact, whilst contrasts sharply against the majority of the found imagery in the exhibition, which has its roots in contemporary black culture.

Comparisons can be made between Gallagher’s work and pop art (mainly in her appropriation of contemporary found imagery), yet the surface textures of her pieces are developed far beyond the conventional flat nature of pop art. This is achieved by employing a range of unconventional media and reworking them in a highly physical way– collages are built up, cut into and scratched– giving us a sense of the artist’s hand at work.

In the Afrylic series, Gallagher references science fiction, horror genre and shadow theatre. Some pieces see the artist replace hair on a collection of photographs, with plasticine and in some of them, the plasticine begins to sinisterly engulf the model’s face.

Similarly in some of her filmatic work, found images are reworked using cutting and obscuring techniques. These film works use light very successfully, eyes are hewn from the subject and replaced with light, provoking an uneasy feel to the works.

Artist Ellen Gallagher's piece entitled "Wiglette from DeLuxe", 2004-2005
Artist Ellen Gallagher’s piece entitled “Wiglette from DeLuxe”, 2004-2005 © Ellen Gallagher

The curation of the show was generally well-considered, with Gallagher’s extensive body of work arranged into groups to show a timeline of development in the various techniques used. The initial room opened the show with a wide range of work in different techniques and styles to both give an overview and introduce the artist’s visual language. This gave the viewer a taster of what was to come in the rest of the exhibition– which was a useful way of beginning the exploration of an artist who is not particularly well known.

After this introductory room the grouping of work is much more coherent allowing the viewer to appreciate and take in each different material and stylistic choice and to see how these choices have developed throughout the artist’s career.

Using the arrangement of the work to focus on materiality gives the exhibition an appeal beyond those who might be drawn to her thematic content and shows the artist’s versatility.

As the show progresses the viewer can see the progression of collage techniques moving from the plasticine heads through to complex works such as ”bird in hand” involving detailed pen and ink drawing, gold leaf and detailed paper cutting.

Another exciting stylistic development presented towards the end of the show is Gallagher’s ink–saturated works, where found imagery is obscured by ink and then reformulated into complex shapes. These forms are exciting in the way they simultaneously reference minimalist curved shapes and contemporary culture.

Seeing the development and variety of style from the beginning to the end of this retrospective provides a solid argument for the major contributions to development of surface in contemporary collage made by Gallagher throughout her career– removing any preconception of her as a minority artist.

Ellen Gallagher, 'DeLuxe' (2004-5) 60 works on paper, etching, screenprint, lithograph with plasticine, velvet, toy eyeballs and coconut oil. © Ellen Gallagher
Ellen Gallagher, ‘DeLuxe’ (2004-5)
60 works on paper, etching, screenprint, lithograph with plasticine, velvet, toy eyeballs and coconut oil. © Ellen Gallagher

Unfortunately some of the artist’s most visually and technically stunning work were in a room which seemed very overcrowded. The black paintings in this room featured very precise shapes built up under a layer of black paint. To fully appreciate the technical complexity and beauty of these works it was useful to view them from different parts of the room. The most visually exciting of these pieces was what appeared to be an abstract collection of shapes– but when viewed from certain angles, like a magic eye, the back of a Mohawked head materialised.

For me, the revelation of this hidden image was an exciting experience, however it was difficult to view the piece from multiple angles because of the quantity of smaller pieces arranged in the centre of the room. Unfortunately the artist’s intention to play with the way the viewer moved around the space was thwarted by the decision to include so many works in one space.

This exhibition enriches the viewer’s understanding of the representation of black people in popular culture. Gallagher both highlights and lampoons stereotyping by creating a highly developed visual language based on the characteristics most exaggerated and repeating them to the point where they become detached from their original context and meaning. Interestingly she also uses this approach with imagery from magazines and advertisements aimed at a black audience. This makes the viewer consider how all elements of the media attempt to define their readers based on limited standards of beauty.

Gallagher’s great success is the adept challenge to our understanding of what can be achieved with certain materials. She pushes her mediums far beyond conventional expectations and the result is a body of work which is technically challenging, but at the same time hints at the myriad of possibilities a surface can develop into in contemporary painting and sculpture.

A version of this review first appeared on http://www.emilywatkinsartist.wordpress.com and is reproduced here with kind permission