PRINT February 1996


with panther skins,

widen them, pelt-to and pelt-fro,
sense-hither and sense-thither,

give them courtyards, chambers, drop doors
and wildnesses, parietal,

and listen for their second
and each time second and second tone.

—Paul Celan,
from Fadensonnen/Threadsuns, trans. Pierre Joris

Amid the generalized hubbub of last year’s Whitney Biennial, Ellen Gallagher’s paintings (drawings?—they contain elements of both) registered as a kind of music, equal parts elegance and wildness. A Mingus big band, a Money Jungle trio, a full gospel chorus, they pulsed along, possessed of a kind of rhythmic logic, everything laid out in rows, broken, undulating, one element hard up against the next. You noticed the blocks of children’s writing paper first, juxtaposed, overlapping—a territory, six-by-seven feet, made up of other territories; later, after looking (listening) a while longer, other blocks emerged: red and white ones made up of rolling, seemingly dead dolls’ eyes; yellow ones of lips like bananas or coffee beans; and even black ones, with little blackface faces floating inside. Gallagher (half Irish, half African-American) has broken a traveling minstrel show down into its component parts and reassembled them into something else, into not-so-pure-patterns of not-so-pure-signs: eyes, mouths opened up now to reveal their various hollows, echo chambers, unseen arenas—word-caves bigger inside than out, lined with panther skins.

Gallagher’s work is, ultimately, a rhythm thing, you understand—like Celan’s, with its panther skins shuttling to and fro: rhythm, always parietal, is the possibility of communication between apparently disparate parts. Gallagher, by putting the minstrel’s face back into play in bits and pieces, creates a peculiarly disjunctive marriage between abstract and narrative painting, high and low, the figural and the referential. On the one hand, the images read primarily as formal elements, pattern and decoration, pure visual play. On the other, the fractured faces are the return of repressed, now-forbidden images, transformed, reworked, reworking—markers of identity, which is always caesural, a matter of rhythm. Of course, seduction is a matter of rhythm, too, and Gallagher knows it: spend a short time with this work and you discover you’ve been seduced, the pattern of echoes and re-echoes drawing you in, drawing you along.

Like the writing paper, which has been in Gallagher’s work right from the beginning. Collaged onto her canvases, it’s this sort of yellowy, beigy stuff—cheap, pulpy paper with a heavy acid content; there are triple blue lines (solid, dashed, solid) printed on it, with an empty space in between each set. In one sense, the paper has a primarily esthetic function, it’s a kind of shorthand for certain Minimalist and Pop gestures. Certainly, Gallagher’s paintings/drawings, with their rows of blue stripes and grids of paper sheets, bring to mind Agnes Martin’s own horizontal stripes. And by using children’s writing paper as a base, she also recalls Jasper Johns’ lifted everyday-industrial imagery, as well as his own grid works stretching toward infinity. But where Martin’s grid speaks to a certain kind of mystic asceticism—a contemplation of the skeleton beneath the skin—and Johns’ Pop grids, with their senseless repetition, to a rejection of the Modernist sublime, in Gallagher’s paintings something different is at stake.

Shuttling between the conventions of abstract painting and the symbols that constitute a language, listening for the undercurrents, for the second tones, Gallagher uses the grid more as a ground to work off of than anything else, its lines (which also recall staves) establishing a certain visual cadence. As with be-bop: the notes are there, you just take off from them, use them for your solo. For Gallagher, the writing paper is primarily a space for inscription in which to sketch the opening movements of her language, the same signs—eyes, mouth, blackface—rendered over and over again, in the same way that a child learns to form letters.

So when Gallagher draws her blocks of dolls’ eyes, her blocks of mouths, she goes from left to right, the way every child is taught to do, the way it makes sense—across the page, down the page, like a language. The lips and eyes are meant to be read as synecdoches for the blackface make-up of the Northern minstrel shows, for the genuine fakes that were always shown there, images of black lives and black bodies made out of white promises of “real, live coon shows.” So that, when the blocks of lips and eyes jump the lines, skating sideways, slantwise across their borders, it’s mostly a matter of reminding us that images belong to no one, they follow no one’s rules, not for long, at any rate. Something always gets away, cuts in and cuts up. Which is, ultimately, what Gallagher’s work is all about: the moments when all the signs are opened up, and you can hear the second tones, hear the rhythm—the moments of flux, frozen, when what’s there is both one way and the other.

Mark Van de Walle is a writer living in New York.