In Oh! Susanna 1993, Gallagher creates a dense surface of repeated symbols, suggesting a pair of googly eyes and a wide grin that come together to make cartoon-like faces. Interspersed among them are another series of blonde heads in profile with their tongues sticking out. The title relates to Stephen Foster’s minstrel song Oh! Susanna. As Gallagher has noted, the song was originally ‘a slave lament – about families being ripped apart’. But the words were soon adapted to reflect the loneliness of settlers heading west during the California Gold Rush: ‘The race element is erased, as it becomes an American song of loss. A very specific loss became a universal loss once race is removed.’
The eyes and mouths of Gallagher’s early paintings are what she has described as ‘the disembodied ephemera of minstrelsy’ – the caricatured make-up adopted by singers, comedians and dancers to present black characters on the stage. For Gallagher, minstrelsy was ‘the first great American abstraction … Disembodied eyes and lips float, hostage, in the electric black of the minstrel stage, distorting the African body into American blackface.’
In the 2008 collage entitled La Chinoise cut and pasted strips of newsprint evoke hanging Chinese scrolls, which are combined with a long, twisting clump of hair that seems to drift across the composition like billowing smoke. In this construction the over-painted bars of text weave together linguistic fragments but could also be seen as purely abstract elements.