THE DRAWING CENTER | March 2 - April 20, 2002
Alternately rough, raw, heated, and cool, Ellen Gallagher’s show Preserve underscores the discrepancies between modernism’s search for a utopian order and history’s stinging remnants. The centerpiece, a sculpture titled “Preserve 2001,” is an archetypal work. Around the walls are advertisements that Gallagher has altered, from Ebony Magazine and Black Stars, for wigs and hair products sold to blacks. The contrast between the gritty nostalgia of these assemblages with the overall mood of Preserve leaves one contemplating the intricacy of finding statement for multi-layered social phenomena. The advertisements from the ’60s and ’70s serve as source material for Gallagher to access primary experiences. Rows of faces are underlined with lively jingles like “Freedom Wig” and “Paris Doll,” to “Afro Puff” or “Gypsy Sweetheart,” with headings like “Falls and Flips” or “Ice or Salt.” Gallagher blackens or colors hair blond, replaces faces, blinds most of her subjects by replacing eyes with silly putty or round little plastic eyes, in what becomes a personal purgation of the dance of mimicry and independence along racial fault lines. Scattered throughout are the signature lips she has so often used to signify a minstrel chorus of men, as part of her continuing project to retrieve the discrepancy between the power of projective display, where whites control the image and yet are inspired by African American creativity. So, in a magazine like Ebony, Blacks aspire to mimic white looks, but as the ’60s progress, the natural afro look enters the Black canon of beauty. Gallagher treats all her subjects as blind, whether the models are photographed to assimilate or to resist white cultural dominance. But there is something too puppet-like in this disturbing treatment, as though her subjects are automatons in a machine where resistance is futile. Whether the afro was a change in African American consciousness, or just a fashionable trend, may underlie Gallagher’s willful blindfolding of herself to the aesthetic possibilities of representing the heroism of Black action. Or it may point to her awareness of sexual stereotyping between men and women as documented in feature stories. Gallagher’s project at this point is to empty out and play the moves, in the game of control, admiration, and transvestitism.
The grid type structure of Preserve is akin to a Sol Lewitt form, but its dimensions and decorative surfaces unmoor Lewitt’s modular precision. The work suggests the limber play of children on jungle gyms, or the bunk beds of prison cells; however, with its open-ended spaces and discursively broad griding that allows space and art within and without, it keeps alive the suggestions of movement. Haunting its rounded white surfaces, reliefs of lips begin to acquire the elusive curvature of flower petals; the tension between recognition and fragmentation becomes so decorative that it acts as a kind of hyper-ironic comment. What do they belong to, and in whose voice did they once cease to speak? The historical voices of plantation and urban experiences hidden behind the professional lips of working actors, or of the audience? There is an exponential component in the multiplicity and separation of lips from bodies.
During the early 1800s, the Minstrel show was invented as entertainment with white men portraying in black face, as whites invented the characters of “Jim Crow, an ignorant country bumpkin ripe for humiliation, and Zip Coon, a city slicker whose self-assurance always led to his comic come-uppance.” This sleight of hand was troped by the 1890s when African Americans were hired to play stereotypes of themselves, some of them in black face. Hair is part of a matrix of symbols in the compelling object of discussion of Black identity. Far more concrete than a metaphor, it is included as a topic in speeches on, and its treatment runs to the tune of a multimillion dollar industry with a promise of recognition or prosperity. Gallagher is dealing with a lot on her plate here, experimenting to symbolize the experience is one single and accumulated betrayals, and the contrasts of mimicry and appropriation between Whites and Blacks, that contribute to a strange wealth of pain and dialogue. These are further contradictions to challenge this artist.
Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn.