Paper Cup is a large-scale, multi-layered work on canvas that combines geometric abstraction derived from a collage of lined paper segments, with hand-drawn representational elements. It is part of artist Ellen Gallagher’s first mature body of work from the mid-1990s. The artist covered the entire surface of the painting’s stretched cotton canvas support with eighty-four horizontal sheets of yellow writing paper, arranged in twelve rows of seven pieces each. In layering the canvas with these small sheets of paper, the artist introduced a degree of imperfection to the work, with variations in the size of individual sheets and areas of overlap producing an irregular grid that is not wholly rectilinear. The pieces of writing paper were glued when wet onto the canvas surface, which accounts for the wrinkled surface quality. This gridded paper collage is then overlaid with a repetitive, biomorphic design drawn by hand in blue ink, which at close range is revealed to reference a racist and outdated minstrelsy idea of blackface physiognomy: a miniscule pair of rubbery lips, repeated thousands of times and loosely following the lines of the paper.
At over two metres tall the painting creates an impact that is suggestive of the grandeur of mid-century American abstract expressionist and colour field paintings, while also setting up a juxtaposition of scale with the tiny individual ‘lips’ elements. The artist has commented on this issue of scale within her large, carefully mapped surfaces, explaining:
The idea of the gigantic is not always about a map … The scale is also about a kind of focus and humiliation. As if you’re watching something that is too awful. There is an anti-spectacularity and humbleness in the labor of the work – it’s hard to feel as if you ever have a good day’s work as so little is achieved every day.
(Quoted in Morgan 2001, p.23.)
The results of this time-consuming, humble work are the many pairs of ‘lips’. In places they are lopsided, drawn in double, blotted or stained with excess ink. They do not fill the picture plane. Towards the right side of the canvas edge the ink drawing trails off, resulting in an irregular blank space: a margin of two slim yellow triangles of blank writing paper. After laboriously inscribing this miniature parade of unsettling and grotesquely comic symbols in ink, Gallagher sealed the collaged painting with a coat of clear varnish, excess deposits of which are visible in the top right corner.
The artist has discussed a particular quality of the stationary papers she has used in works including Paper Cup, revealing that:
The paper itself, it’s not archival. It’s archival in the sense of historical but it’s not a fine-art material. It will yellow and darken with time, so no matter what it resists me in that way. No matter how I may try to build it into forms, or arc it, or cut it, it will darken and yellow, which I like. It has its own relationship to time.
(Quoted in PBS Art:21, http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/gallagher/clip1.html, accessed 3 September 2010.)
This unavoidable process of material ageing emphasises the meditative temporal qualities that Gallagher builds into her delicately handmade paintings. The curator and writer Claire Doherty has considered the conceptual and material tensions of works such as Paper Cup, writing:
Though Gallagher’s canvases are described as paintings, on closer inspection they reveal themselves as aggregations of materials. The ink, pencil and penmanship paper recall the process by which handwriting is learned. In this process the hand is literally trained to conform in order that communication may be scripted. The parallel lines act as the boundaries which contain language. Similarly the lines of this penmanship paper also resemble the staves of a musical score.
(Doherty 1998, p.9.)
By creating a grid structure and working with a formal vocabulary that alludes to the geometry and seriality of 1960s minimalism when viewed from afar, Paper Cup cloaks its socio-political referents in the guise of art-historical reminiscences, only to subvert that safe heritage upon closer examination of the painting surface. The curator Roxana Marcoci has observed of this process of covertly embedding racial signifiers that: ‘By inserting these provocative snippets on grade-school paper, Gallagher turns the whitewashed Minimalist grid of artists such as Agnes Martin into a “prison house of race talk.”’ (Marcoci 2007, p.18.) Complicating the legacy of minimalism, Gallagher opens up its sublime abstraction to a powerful and unsavoury current of American history.
Claire Doherty, Ellen Gallagher, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 1998.
Jessica Morgan (ed.), Ellen Gallagher, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston 2001, reproduced p.59.
Roxana Marcoci, Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2007.
PBS Art:21, ‘Ellen Gallagher Interview: eXelento and DeLuxe’, http://www.pb.org/art21/artists/gallagher/clip1.html, accessed 3 September 2010.