Ellen Gallagher

An exhibit of works by Ellen Gallagher just opened at the Henry Art Gallery. The artist was present to give a talk about her work. I’ll have to go back for a more extended look, but what I saw (and heard) was quite interesting. Gallagher’s work is fascinatingly oblique, giving a kind of formalist take on the history and position of black people in America. Gallagher took advertisements for wigs from old copies of Ebony and other African American magazines (her archive extends from 1939 to the late 1970s). She obsessively reworked these images in various ways, replacing the depicted wigs with plasticine blobs, effacing the faces of the models, organizing the resulting tiny images in huge grid patterns.
Gallagher is tracing a careful path between the Scylla of identity politics, and the Charybdis of universalizing abstraction. She is not representing “black identity” or even black history in any straightforward way; but neither are her abstract patterns – which is what you first notice of her work from a distance – abstracted from history, or from the history of that (contingent, non-essential, but also perfectly concrete and real) “identity.”
Wigs are a prosthetic amplification of the body, even when (or especially when) it is claimed (as is the case in many of the ads Gallagher appropriates) that they are “natural.” (They are also part of the larger history of the cultural meanings of hair – remember Madame C. J. Walker). As dubious fashion accessories. wigs themselves have a history in the years of Gallagher’s archive (witness the differences between the straight ones of the 1940s and the Afros of the late 60s and 70s).
But Gallagher is not just memorializing a history. Neither is she making a critique (as might well be done, for instance, from the point of view of looking at the various ways that African Americans have often sought to make their hair straigher, more like white people’s hair). Rather, she is exploring a tricky middle ground, where identity, an artifice to begin with, becomes blurred by memory, time, and loss, but is never entirely obliterated. Her images of prosthetics of the body are themselves prosthetic images: images which replace, or extend, previous images. This suggests an endless progression of simulacra, perhaps; but it does NOT suggest any sort of Baudrillardian thesis that the “real” has been obliterated. This is because, far from being “hyperreal,” Gallagher’s images are troublingly concrete: indexical presences rather than achieved absences, residues rather than effacements of their dubious “originals.”
In her talk, Gallagher linked these residual presences, uneffaced despite the violence with which she works over her appropriated images, to the themes of Afrofuturist science fiction. That is to say, she sees the Middle Passage as the true and ultimate form of alien abduction: people taken away from their homes and families, brutally dragged by strangers through an unfamiliar, blank space, and enslaved in an utterly alien environment. She suggested that the Middle Passage itself, rather than any fantasy of Mother Africa, is the one “origin” back to which black Americans can refer. And she cited the conceptualizations of Samuel Delany, and the SF mythologizings of George Clinton and especially Drexciya, with their wonderful vision of an underwater Atlantean realm, inhabited by the women and children who perished during the Middle Passage. Gallagher said that she felt close to Drexciya both in terms of this mythology, and in terms of the oblique, abstract way that they present it, in enigmatic techno music without vocals.
Gallagher is a brilliant artist of the in-between, in many different senses.

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