Since the early 1990s, Ellen Gallagher has employed an extraordinary number of techniques and materials in her art making. Her varied and abundant body of work encompasses painting, drawing, sculpture, collage and film; she will often combine multiple media in a single piece. On the surfaces of her arresting compositions, Gallagher cuts, mounts, prints, blots and inscribes to build up surfaces or scrape them away. The resulting sumptuous, thickset texture of each work bears witness to her singular and highly complex process of mark-making.
Gallagher’s subject matter also defies simple categorisation. Her imagery ranges from fantastical marine organisms to advertisements from vintage magazines, googly eyes, viscous wigs made of modelling clay, and fields of repetitive marks that may be abstract, figurative, or occupy the ambiguous border between the two. Gallagher became known for paintings that initially allude to the minimalist grid, but on closer examination reveal symbols that suggest the exaggerated lips and eyes associated with the caricatural representation of black people in cartoons or ‘minstrel’ shows. Her later works draw upon a diversity of sources, such as the Harlem Renaissance, wig advertisements, science fiction, oceanography, and the novels of Herman Melville. Music is also an important motif; several works pay homage to the flamboyant imagination and baroque wordplay of jazz/funk musicians like Sun Ra and George Clinton./p>
AxME is Gallagher’s first major retrospective in the UK. The title is a play on the black American vernacular for ‘ask’ as well as the ‘Acme Corporation’ – the fictional mail-order company that supplies Wile E. Coyote with an endless series of traps and devices to capture Road Runner. AxME brings together non-chronological works from many different periods, creating echoes and dialogues that allow natural connections to unfold. This loose structure keeps with Gallagher’s own working practice of returning repeatedly to the same themes and motifs – revising, deepening and transforming. ‘What is crucial to my making of a language and a cosmology of signs is the type of repetition that is central to jazz’, she has said. ‘You start off with a limited class of signs and, like jazz, you revisit and repeat with slight changes and build structure… It’s a shifting loop that with each rotation doesn’t line up precisely.’