Esirn Coaler demonstrates the complex technique of layering that characterises much of Ellen Gallagher’s work. It is a wall-hanging relief comprising strips of dark grey and black plasticine packed into a rectangular block supported on an aluminium base. The strips are of uniform dimensions and organised in a rectilinear pattern resembling uneven parquet flooring. The plasticine strips have been overlaid with raised text in diverse fonts, cut from sheets of dark grey or black plasticine of various thicknesses. The name ‘Esirn Coaler’ dominates the upper part of the composition. At the centre is the slogan: ‘Fast Relief from Pain’. Other words and phrases have medical connotations, such as ‘corns’, ‘callouses’ and ‘bunions’.
Along the work’s upper frame runs the lead-in text: ‘The following is copied from an experiment of unusual opportunity’. This is a quotation drawn from a report related to the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, a medical study centred on the Tuskagee Institute, Alabama, which followed the effects of syphilis in 399 untreated black victims of the disease from 1932 over a forty year period. Included in this context, the quotation seems to invoke medical practice – specifically pain relief medication – as unethical, duplicitous and even dehumanising. The title of T12508 refers to a fictional character devised by the artist. In Gallagher’s words, Esirn Coaler functions as ‘a witness to the abolition of pain’ (email to Tate curator Rachel Taylor, 5 October 2007, Tate Gallery Records). For the artist, the apparently random presentation of a range of words with health implications creates, ‘[an] endless litany of ailments [that] suddenly comes into ridiculous/sharp focus as the pains – sore toes, bunions, corns, backache – of people working. Toiling at work that required them to use their bodies as machines.’ (Email to Tate curator Rachel Taylor, 5 October 2007, Tate Gallery Records.)
Esirn Coaler closely resembles two slightly earlier reliefs of the same dimensions entitled Light n Write and Corns (both 2006), in which Gallagher similarly placed fragments of text drawn from promotions for medical treatments made of dark plasticine against a support made of grey plasticine strips. She conceived Esirn Coaler as a companion piece to her print series DeLuxe 2004–5 (T12301). In both these works the artist engages with issues relating to race, cultural politics and consumerism by using references drawn from advertising to scrutinise tensions generated around the formation of black identity. In DeLuxe Gallagher’s principal source material for the prints are advertisements found in black American magazines from the 1930s to the 1970s, such as Ebony, Our World and Sepia, that promote beauty products promising transformations and ‘improvements’ for black consumers. The artist overlays the advertisements for items including skin lightening treatments and wigs with an array of different materials including plasticine, paint, toy eyes and glitter, making her own transformations to models’ faces. Eyes are blanked out with white paint and elaborate hairstyles crafted from yellow plasticine added, amongst a range of modifications, which turn the prints into three-dimensional reliefs.
While Esirn Coaler is distinct from DeLuxe in terms of its formal qualities and techniques, the works share the use of text, specifically words and phrases in fixed type, borrowed from advertisements. Through a process of remixing, recognisable words and parts of words are isolated, decontextualised and endowed with new significance. In T12508, the ‘Co’ of ‘Coaler’ is derived from an advertisement for Coca Cola. Gallagher has commented: ‘I was attracted to the font because even a small piece remains somehow familiar’ (email to the author, 10 December 2009, Tate Gallery Records).
Gallagher lives and works in New York and Rotterdam and made Esirn Coaler in Rotterdam. The work was produced specifically for Tate for display in the exhibition Passages from History at Tate Modern in 2007.
Greg Tate and Karen Alexander, Ellen Gallagher: Coral Cities, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 2007.
‘Ellen Gallagher Interview: Characters, Myths and Stories’, Art:21–Art in the Twenty-First Century, http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/gallagher/clip2.html, accessed 3 December 2009.
‘Ellen Gallagher Interview: eXelento and DeLuxe’, Art:21–Art in the Twenty-First Century, http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/gallagher/clip1.html
, accessed 3 December 2009.