ARTIST ROOMS artist essay
American artist Ellen Gallagher has two paintings in the ARTIST ROOMS collection: Paper Cup and Untitled. She has Irish and African American origins, which have shaped the texture and subject matter of her practice. Sources include the vaudeville tradition of black minstrels, science fiction and advertising targeted at African Americans.
Gallagher has relied on the repetition and revision of minimalist structures since her early career; the subtle shifts and repetitions in the writing of Gertrude Stein have long been an influence, along with the sublime paintings of Agnes Martin. Minimalist geometry is used as an empty shell into which controversial or taboo subject matter relating to gender, race and history is inserted.
In the mid 1990s Gallagher began a series of large scale work including Paper Cup, which envelopes the viewer in a textured, apparently abstract surface which is actually a historic cosmology of repeated shapes – the rubbery lips, bow ties and rolling eyes of the vaudeville minstrels. In 1998 she developed a related series of black enamel paintings, inscribing the dark surface with calligraphic features relating to the minstrel stereotype.
Recent developments have seen Gallagher collecting and appropriating images from magazines aimed at African American women, many of them suggesting the use of prosthetic enhancements to diminish blackness. In collaging a range of materials into the surfaces, including plasticine, rubber and coconut oil, Gallagher adds her own humorous prostheses, developing a personal visual language.
Gallagher’s work expresses on the one hand how to be in the present, pushing forward the traditions and boundaries of painting; on the other, it reminds the viewer that however insignificant they may become, designations from the past continue to multiply and form part of the texture of the world today.