Ellen Gallagher: Accidental Records At Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles (Through January 28, 2018) Reviewed by Emily Nimptsch
Expanding upon her seminal DeLuxe series (2004–05) as well as her intricately drawn Watery Ecstatic series (2001-2009), Rhode Island-born, Brooklyn and Rotterdam-based mixed-media artist and minimalist painter Ellen Gallagher’s newly opened exhibition, Ellen Gallagher: Accidental Records is currently making waves at Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles, with her exploration of maritime themes.
As a graduate of Oberlin College and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gallagher is renowned for building meticulously layered and cut paper relief paintings highlighting the evolution of African-American stereotypes. In 2003 and 2015, her work was selected to show at the prestigious Venice Biennale. She was also the subject of the 2013 solo survey AxME at the Tate Modern, London. Made from cut and reassembled mid-century wig advertisements from Ebony and Sepia, Gallagher’s iconic DeLuxe print series resembles abstracts from a distance and challenges many preconceived notions about race.
These latest marine paintings also have much to say on this topic, as Gallagher aims to recover the repressed values and cultures of marginalized and enslaved people in the Middle Passage era (ca. 1440-1640). This multi-layered exhibition was partially inspired by Drexciya, a Detroit-based electronic duo popular in the 1990’s. The group revealed in notes for their 1997 album, The Quest, that Drexciya is the name of a fictionalized underwater country populated by the descendants of real-life slaves who were thrown overboard from a Jamaican-bound slave ship in 1781. English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner also reimagined these murderous proceedings in 1840’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming on). In their lyrics, Drexciya imagined a happy ending for these drowned slaves, pretending that they could breathe underwater and create a utopian civilization beneath the waves. Gallagher also enjoys this Afrofuturist group’s work for its sonic map-making quality, as cartography is prominently featured in this latest showing.
The majority of Gallagher’s Accidental Records paintings feature imperfect square and rectangular forms in the background, as if she is mapping the alien sea floor from above. We know so little about this sunken realm that the moon with its Sea of Tranquility is actually better understood. These patches, clearly seen in 2017’s Sea Bed (Sediment), also resemble magnified skin cells, which could be a statement about how absurd it is to box-in and stereotype an entire group of people based on skin color as well as try and map the infinitely vast and deep oceans.
On a personal level, both of Gallagher’s parents come from cultures where connection to the ocean is paramount, Gallagher herself being half-Irish and half-Cape Verdean. Although she grew up in the seaside city of Providence, Rhode Island, she was never really aware of the nearby Providence River or Narragansett Bay, being that her community was cut-off from these bodies of water. Developing an interest in marine biology as a young adult, she spent a semester at sea and currently divides her time between Rotterdam in the low-lying Netherlands and Red Hook, Brooklyn. These prominent port cities provide much in the way of inspiration for Gallagher.
For the artist, the sea holds countless mysteries and histories relating to the natural world. We can see her passion for depicting aquatic creatures in Watery Ecstatic, an assortment of illustrative drawings and carvings of real and imaginary marine life. These intimate works, as well as her grand Accidental Records paintings, help us to better understand and appreciate these bizarre and awe-inspiring organisms. There is an inherent sense of philosophical beauty and freedom in recognizing the eternal cycles of life and death that occur without human interference or awareness. Otherworldly creatures living far below the sun’s warm glow have long survived and prospered under the waves without our knowledge. Gallagher’s paintings allow us the privilege of peering below into the aquamarine waters of the subconscious mind.
The artist was also greatly inspired by Canadian painter Agnes Martin’s minimalist canvases and pastel palette, and Gallagher employs in this collection Martin’s signature broad coverage of baby blue hues. A key focus Martin, and part of the function of her work, was in clearing the mind and allowing the subconscious to take over. She never came to a canvas with a fleshed-out idea but instead practiced a kind-of freely flowing, automatic painting — a process inspired by Sigmund Freud and practiced by the Surrealists. Perhaps this devotion to happenstance and the subliminal is a nod to the exhibition’s title.
Interestingly, Gallagher’s photo collage Odalisque (2014) is also on display here and features Freud’s head on Henri Matisse’s body. This piece is Gallagher’s take on a 1928 photograph of Matisse drawing a reclining model in Orientalist garb surrounded by extravagant textiles. Here, the model’s face is replaced by Gallagher’s as she attempts to explore the art world’s obsession with the odalisque. These popular scenes from Turkey and the Middle East were made possible by European trading and were depicted by many artists who never actually ventured to these lands. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, for instance, famously painted the languorous nude in 1814 and Edouard Manet painted his own version in 1863’s Olympia. By inserting herself into the role of the model, Gallagher reclaims her power as the body, especially the non-white body, has been historically used as a tool for capitalist development and colonial empires.
Also exploited in this era, the mighty and majestic whale is a crucial theme in series, with both Whale Fall and Whale Falls (2017) prominently featured. This potent subconscious metaphor was used in Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Gallagher explores this rich symbol through whale falls. These happenings occur when a dead whale falls to the ocean floor, and in doing so feeds over 200 species dependent on the life above. Gallagher attempts to capture the beauty and terror of this majestic end-of-life event — terror, that is, for the actual animal, since scientists are coming to determine that many dying dolphins and whales beach themselves because they do not want to drown. Those last hours, then, are the lonely limbo between suicide and survival. For Gallagher, this purgatorial state also applies to racial identity as an African-American living in Rotterdam.
Ultimately, Accidental Records aids us in understanding that the ocean not only brings life in the form of supplies and fauna, but death to many. Gallagher’s trademark mask-like cartoon eyes act as omniscient spectators here, perhaps referencing Middle Passage ancestors or lynching audiences throughout the years. As oppressors typically control the narrative through revisionist history, books and paintings, Gallagher regains that power through this poignant collection. With the world’s oceans currently reclaiming land through climate change after centuries of environmental abuse, this historical yet timely exhibition, with its brilliant black enamel suite, is an ode to wetness and the radiance found in the darkest of shades.