task from Ellen Gallagher There is a multi-dimensional slalom ride about her paintings: we reach from the social life of the paintings to the sex life of coral and the oceans and transports of slaves over the centuries. Right now their latest works are completed and singing to each other on a gallery floor before going their separate ways in museums or private collections.
There are just five paintings on display at London’s Hauser & Wirth gallery, but they embody the idea of two years of “hard, manual labor” and decades of work that plug into a deeply personal mythology he created in Afrofuturist fiction. , Marine biology, evolved from random song. The songs and their artist’s struggles foreshadow the giving of black people a proper place in the world.
“Painting’s social life, you know, is pretty incredible,” she says from her studio in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, where she enjoys directing installations via video link. “There’s this paucity of time when They will be in the scene. And I am well aware that that is all I get as an artiste. It’s the moment they’re out of the studio and they exist together like I wanted them to, before they go out into the world and find this second life. There is also a sad side to all this. “I’ve always been jealous of writers because when you write something, it’s yours forever, while sometimes paintings can be private for a very long time.” But then she reconsiders: “Historically, paintings actually end up in magical places.”
Gallagher’s mind, like his art, cracks the relation of time and space. On the eve of a large exhibition of his work at the Tate Liverpool in 2007, the poet Jackie Kay wrote, “His work is like jazz on a huge canvas.” “She paints riffs, repetitions and refrains. Trauma is presented in patterns, repeated cycles, virus-shapes. Despite our interview being on Zoom, Gallagher keeps leaping to find a piece of art, a point Historical Evidence to Display. Talk of Magical Places Reminds Him Cézanne’s 1867 painting The Negro Scipio. The photo is now in the city of So Paulo, Brazil, but how did it get there, when its first owner is known as Cézanne’s fellow Impressionist, Claude Monet? “It was so special to Monet that he kept it in his bedroom, where were his favorite works. And then to end up in Brazil, where some scholars don’t know that it exists? It is such an important work in his collection.” So it’s reappearing more and more in our praise of Cézanne.”
Resurfacing is an important concept for the artist, which extends far beyond the physical whereabouts of the painting, what that painting does, and how we receive and process information. The naked back of The Negro Scipio recalls the lumpy keloid scarring that has been there since a series of all-black, textured paintings created in 1998 to depict the psychosis of race relations in history and its place in Western essence. The work has been a specialty. art. In her two latest photos the scars reappeared in the form of a brown band of visceral between the separated heads of the women. flicker selected palladium leafHeads are a resurrection of themselves traditional fang sculptures from Congo. But in turbulent times like ours, resurrection also reflects a change in our way of looking at things, she says. “Now we’re looking differently, I guess. Mmm. Mmm.”
Two of the new paintings, both watercolor, are part of a long-running series, Watery Ecstatic, which combines marine biology with an Afrofuturist mythology created in 1997. Detroit Techno Act, Draxia. It imagines a Black Atlantis, inhabited by the descendants of pregnant West African women who were dumped in the Americas during a Middle Way crossing. The paintings fizz with bubble-like motifs that, in Gallagher’s own improvisation on the legend, have come to symbolize the lost future children of the Babylonians of these drowned slaves. They are like eyes, looking at us.
Although the paintings are beautiful in their own right, with an appearance that is not seen in reproduction, you need to have some familiarity with his recurring motifs to fully understand them. In one, two octopuses — one buoyant and gentle and the other coiled up on the ocean floor — are separated from what I take to be varieties of green seaweed. I see, but am I seeing? Well, no, she says deftly. Indeed, it’s all about “whale fall”—the decomposed carcasses of cetaceans that become an essential part of ocean nutrition as they drift across the ocean floor. “When an adult whale dies, and it moves through the water columns, it is surely eaten. And when it reaches the abyss, it becomes another source of life, It has its own ecosystem, to be cut down. For bottom-dwellers that don’t get much light or nutrients, the whale carcass is the primary food source.” So I’m actually looking at whale bones. Of the paintings with palladium heads, she says: “What I was really thinking of when I made these was coral spawn. Yes, coral sex life.”
Gallagher’s fascination with marine biology predates his life as an artist. Born in 1965 in Providence, Rhode Island, to an Irish Catholic mother and an American-born father of West African Cape Verdean heritage, she went to art school after studying a semester and drawing sea snails at night on a giant. Dropped a creative writing degree for Commercial Fishing Schooner. His octopuses simultaneously appear real and symbolic of monsters in the unknown corners of colonial maps.
He has described his working process as both scrimshaw (the art of carving sailors’ bones and marine mammals’ tusks) and “the airplane-model school of painting”. It’s a vigorous business, involving collaging, gouging, and mounding material on a signature background of blue-lined penmanship paper. She has cut a gap in the floor of her studio to accommodate the scale of the paintings, so that she can move her canvases up and down, patting and scraping on both sides. “The official one is Ellen Gallagher, which is what I’m going to show you. And then there’s this other side that fixed everything,” she says. “And there is a very disturbing moment in the life of a painting when it is actually on the better side.”
In non-Covid times, Gallagher divides her time between Brooklyn and Rotterdam, where she lives, and sometimes works, with Dutch photographer Edgar Kleijn. “To me it is the darkest city in Europe,” she says – a sea port that, despite being completely rebuilt after World War II, carries a great deal of trading history. Its association with the Netherlands extends to its art – Flemish primitives with their devils, who were “more turbulence than physical caricatures of the devil”, and 17th-century commodity painters, such as Albert Eckhot, who traveled with the Dutch royal. The court in the 1630s documented the conquest of Brazil by depicting its people, and its flora and fauna. “I consider these to be a kind of mapping. For us, they are forensic evidence of the existence of the plantation.”
In her thinking, in her content, and in her whole way of working, she’s dealing with so many heavy things. Is she ever tempted to sum everything up and do something trivial? “It’s so funny,” she replies. “Do you know that when I was in school in 1993, [the artist] Kiki Smith asked me the same question. And now it’s 2021. And you asked me the same thing again?” So what was his answer? “Oh, I laughed now,” she says, “I laughed then and I laugh now.”
She believes that her work is really heavy. “I’ve been working for a really long time and I feel so blessed to have interacted with the incredible people all these years who have supported the work, but I also think there are some people who would say that It’s pretty trivial. You know, it’s a painting after all, huh?”
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