Walking through a well curated exhibition is like magic. You either discover a wonderful new artist, or rediscover an artist whose work you were familiar with, but had been buried under the layers of recent art you’ve seen. I’ve heard so much about Ellen Gallagher but had never really seen an exhibition of her work, till this weekend at Tate Modern. And I’ve been bewitched.
An artist with Irish / African American origins, Gallagher’s art is hard to put into a particular box or even arrange into straight chronological categories. She’s constantly exploring different media and returning to themes she has previously worked with, to either continue the story or give it a new twist. Her show at Tate is called AxME which is a play on the black American vernacular for ‘ask’ as well as the fictional mail-order company ‘Acme Corporation‘ that gives the cartoon character Wile E Coyote his supply of devices to trap Road Runner.
One thing that’s useful to know before going to see the exhibition, is that you have to take the work for what you see it to be. Her genius lies in her medium, technique and the representations she reinterprets. And while I am guilty of walking into every exhibition asking for a story, a cause, a point to the art, Gallagher’s is less straightforward and obvious.
Gallagher’s background and interests are varied, ranging from skin cream and wig advertisements in vintage African American magazines, the Harlem Renaissance, oceanography, whales and one legged men especially the Herman Melville kind, the googly eyes and caricatured lips that were used to represent black people in cartoons or minstrel shows, and definitely a love for penmanship paper and modelling clay. Most of Gallagher’s works are multlayered and structured in grids, with her fascination with lips, wigs and tongues being very evident.
The exhibition also has a number of video pieces Gallagher has made in conjunction with German artist Edgar Cleijne. But the fascinating paintings quickly drew me away from these projections which run to strange jazz/javanese music that I found a bit disturbing.
Above all, Gallagher’s work is like jazz. It’s playful and repeats itself, it’s discordant but beautiful, and it has a mastery that is mesmerising. While this might sound like a tad too many gushing adjectives, stand up close to one of her works from the Morphia series, look through the lazer cut holes in the drawings to see the rest of the works within the gallery, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Ellen Gallagher’s AxME is one show that you need to physically see to believe. No technology can capture the delicate beauty of the layered works, though I rue that there are no install images available online to share. If you do venture to make the trip to Tate Modern, go visit the Saloua Choucair exhibition as well. Two exhibitions by powerful women artists only a floor apart, is a big coup indeed and not to be missed.