In Bird in Hand 2006 Ellen Gallagher elaborates on a vocabulary of materials and symbolism established in earlier works to create an image that is at once ethereal and persistent. Lined penmanship paper is applied directly to the canvas in a dynamic rhythm, setting waves of light blue lines in motion across the surface. Subsequent layers are built up with magazine pages and fragments of maps showing small towns and mountain ranges, these are precisely cut by hand to create a surface pattern of mangrove roots, seaweed and afro combs. Striations are emphasised along the edges of the collaged paper in a gesture that shows a desire to bare forth the underlying structures that hold up the surface. Gallagher’s work often questions the structures that form collective notions of history, reality and possible futures.

Ellen Gallagher, 'Bird in Hand' 2006
Ellen Gallagher
Bird in Hand 2006
Oil, ink, paper, polymer, salt, gold leaf on canvas
support: 2383 x 3072 mm
Presented anonymously 2007© Ellen Gallagher

In the centre of this vast painting, that measures 238 x 307cm, is the figure of a sea faring captain with wooden leg, entwined with roots that float across the foreground. A reoccurring figure in Gallagher’s work, this one legged pirate can be read as an iteration of ‘Pegleg’, or reference to Captain Ahab from Melville’s Moby Dick. At once both and neither, the figure is that of a sprite, an archaic soul from another time. Lumps of Himalayan rock salt protrude from the cords of the neck. Believed to have healing properties, the salt has a composition identical to the ancient oceans and contains the same mineral proportions as the human body. This poignant choice of material is evocative of the mythical Drexcyia, an underwater Black Atlantis, as the ancient oceans become life force, equivalent to the human body

Attempts to read this painting subvert any fixed sense of scale. With forms emerging that are familiar to both microscopic organisms and constellations in nights sky. Swarms of black hair highlighted with glinting bits of gold leaf float above the figure; when seen from a certain angle text becomes visible, and appropriated slogans float off into the ether. ‘Black Magic’, ‘Duke’, ‘Free’, ‘Superior’, ‘Stay dead forever’ and other words, whole or adapted from the original print, create subtle associations as the artist playfully shuffles signs and narrative.

Loren Hansi Momodu is Assistant Curator at Tate Modern. Ellen Gallagher: AxME is on display at Tate Modern 1 May – 1 September 2013