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

Bird in Hand 2006, the work that dominates this room, is built onto a dense surface of penmanship paper, attached in a series of overlapping waves rather than the neatly ordered grid of some of Gallagher’s earlier works. The central figure is a one-legged pirate whose expansive growth of hair seems to merge with the tendrils of vegetation that float around him, even as the thick undergrowth at his feet twines into and around his legs. The baroque elaboration of detail seems to multiply and grow through layers of paint, gold leaf, plasticine and rough rock crystal as well as paper elements that include maps, newspaper cuttings and advertisements for beauty products.

The figure of the wooden-legged pirate combines the obsessive, demonic Captain Ahab from Melville’s Moby-Dick with another of Gallagher’s recurring figures, Peg Leg Bates. Clayton Bates was a one-legged acrobatic tap dancer who had enormous success on the vaudeville circuit. This combination of historical and fictional characters comprises a collage that slips away from a fixed surface of representation. Any attempt to read the character as an individual person is thwarted, as the image slides back and forth between portrait and abstraction revealing an interlocking web of imaginary concerns.