Wednesday, 31 July 2013

A Beautiful World of Googly Eyes and Jelly Fish

A visit to Tate Modern finds Cathy Lomax pondering the existence of an underwater black Atlantis. This is her review of Ellen Gallagher's AxME, a show about a world of beautiful liberation.

Ellen Gallagher, Wiglette from DeLuxe, 2004

Ellen Gallagher employs multiple art-making personalities in order to convey the concerns that interest her. In AxME (say it out loud to get it) her solo show at Tate Modern, she paints, prints, collages, draws, sculpts, films and installs in order to tell us about the strange and cruel stereotyping of being other (and more particularly black) and her fantasy about escaping this and becoming immersed in a world of beautiful liberation.

Gallagher’s best know works are huge grids of enlarged ads from black magazines such as Ebony. Over these grainy depictions of mainly black women with afros, braids and perfect skin she has applied gobs of bright yellow Plasticine. Often this covers their hair and eyes making an abstract pattern of tone-free circles, swirls and sunbursts. There are three of these works in one of the galleries – creating an immersive atmosphere, one that continues but changes in an adjoining room which houses a number of film and animation works made in collaboration with Edgar Cleijne called Murmur. This darkened space allows us to shed the uncomfortable commodified skin of artificial appearance and wriggle into a lithe and weightless underwater fantasy accompanied by the whir of a bank of old-style projectors. Comparisons to Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies come to mind, although Gallagher’s beautiful underwater creatures are not switched from black to white, as is the case with Tom the child chimney sweep, but are instead inspired by her studies of oceanography and the myth of a black Atlantis peopled by the unborn descendants of slaves thrown overboard.

Ellen Gallagher, Abu Simbel, 2005

Other works in the show feature banks of googly eyes and miniaturised oversized lips – discomforting symbols of racial stereotyping – and canvases and watercolours of strange amorphous forms. One large mixed media canvas, An Experiment of Unusual Opportunity, hovers somewhere between abstraction and figuration and refers to the hideous case of hundreds of black men in America who had contracted syphilis and were studied by the Public Health Service to trace the long-term effects of the disease without being told they were infected or offered any treatment.

Ellen Gallagher, Bird in Hand, 2006

But Gallagher is no stern Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby figure – passing judgement on white gallery goers for the terrible injustices committed by their ancestors. Instead she delicately mines and undermines her source material and miraculously creates something beautiful and unique out of all the typecasting, exploitation and horror. 

Cathy Lomax

A sketch by Cathy Lomax

Tate Modern, London SE1
1 May - 1 September

Images 1-3 © Ellen Gallagher

1 comment:

  1. I went to see this exhibition on the recommendation of the writer of this review and it just blew my mind. The mix of political/racial context with the sheer ingenuity and use of varying materials is dizzingly inventive. Beauty, horror, myth and art historicy all play their part. But for me, the most compelling thing is the revealing of the artist herself at work. Gallagher takes small images, scraps of ideas/obsessions/questions and takes them on a brave visual - what is this thing and why does it fascinate me so? epic journey of discovery which particularly inspired me as viewer and wannabe artist.
    The writer has accurately distilled the essence of this huge show (there are ten rooms of work) giving an accurate evocative flavour of the work and in the wonderful line “but Gallagher is no stern Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby figure” also gives a feeling of its quiet humanity and accessibility. A must see for sure