PRINT April 2004



For the past decade, Ellen Gallagher has charted the contours of worlds both fantastic and unimaginably real, where minstrel-show ephemera contaminate otherwise elegant compositions to the visible chagrin of blushing penmanship paper; the dark history of the Middle Passage is refracted through a watery heterotopia of swirling oil and ink; and bulbous lips and bulging eyes cling stealthily to the icy porcelain geometry of a mock jungle gym. All the while unburdened by the dictates of identity politics (for which she has too often been cast as a cipher), Gallagher has recently turned her attention to the particularities of subjecthood elided in universalizing abstraction. POMP-BANG, 2003, is the third work in a new series that began with Falls & Flips, 2001, and Double Natural, 2002, and will swell to eight contingent panels, each featuring recurring characters centered on archival material and advertisements Gallagher has culled from such publications as Ebony, Our World, and Black Stars. Products and their advocates clamoring to remedy a plethora of “ills”—acne, dark skin, inappropriate hair—are canceled and preserved through Gallagher’s interventions of Wite-Out and collage.

In POMP-BANG Gallagher works from the edifice of the grid, colonizing its autonomous structure and undoing its conformity from within. Across this massive eight-by-sixteen-foot canvas, 396 individual pages jostle for attention. One strains to see in parallax, as to take in the painting as a whole is to miss the delicious specificities of the distinct textual grounds or the quirky humor of the stylized plasticine wigs. The facticity of the newsprint thus cedes to the fantasy of Gallagher’s inscriptions, while the labor involved in both the production of the painting and the social construction that provides its material support underlines their mutual impossibility. Eventually, then, this series will chart anew so many returns of the repressed—figures held too long against their will. But even in POMP-BANG alone, we can begin to read the ransom note Gallagher is subtly drafting.

Suzanne P. Hudson


For Falls & Flips, I scanned found advertisements and printed the scans onto archival newsprint; then I cut the wigs out of the ads and glued the sliced-up paper to the support. I started at the top left corner as though the painting were a page; I worked my way across the canvas, writing myself into it. By the fourth line or so, an organizing principle took shape. I carefully inlaid the new plasticine wigs inside the guiding lines from where I had cut the original wig away. The painting becomes a flattened web when you step back from it, all yellow and black, a kind of bumblebee weave. Then, in Double Natural, I started reading the advertisements and playing the wig constructions off the texts. There were a lot of ads about the new synthetic fibers being used in Afro wigs. They had oddly appropriate names like “afrilon” and “afrylic,” and the wigs themselves were called things like “Nu-Nile,” “Kongolene,” and “Freedom Puff.” I was interested in the blob form, this idea of a “double” natural, because your own natural might sag, or just not be natural enough. The blobs overtake the underlying shapes—they are built up into a thick relief—and the Afro forms seep into their skin. Seen from the side, the gray tones of the ads disappear and the yellow plasticine Afros become like lily pads, a strange surface that also, uncannily, looks like skin.

I scan pages from advertisements about control: acne, unruly hair, corns, bunions, and asthma. These all have particular class connotations, and I remember hearing, as a child, that you got asthma from cockroaches, from enclosed spaces. Constriction is interesting to me as the loss of control of something as elemental as your breath. Corns and bunions have something specific about them too, something so black, that is funny to me. But they have a specificity that is not about race but rather about skin and about being on your feet all the time. Just like the ads have their own material history, plasticine was used for stop-action animation to suggest motion and also to make models. These structures are built out of whimsy but are also very tectonic.

Each new painting is becoming its own universe. POMP-BANG is more aquatic, like something from Jules Verne. The Flying Nun character is specific to POMP-BANG, as are wigs that double as helmets. Also, my Flying Nun is somehow about both levitation and the Leviathan. So in this series some of the characters repeat, but each painting has a different sequence and the wigs vary. The characters may repeat, but they’re never in the same neighborhood, lined up the same way. It’s all about repetition and revision.

Peg-Leg and the Nurses appear in each painting; the Nurses often cluster around Peg-Leg, who is pilfered from an ad for an interracial motel in the Catskills. He is my Ahab. Similarly, the Nurses reference Eunice Rivers, the black nurse central to the Tuskegee experiment where black men with syphilis were ushered into the medical system only to be denied treatment. When she was later questioned about her role she was indignant because this was the first time these men had actually been brought into the health-care system. She felt she had done them a service; but because the system was sick and twisted, she was also a culprit. There is a perversion in taking pride in your work and having it turned against you. These images are about a specific time and a specific anxiety about assimilation and integration, but they are also about hope and whimsy and self-determination. It is a working grid.

The wigs themselves have information embedded within them. They start from the ’30s and go until about 1978, but here they are neither really chronological nor wholly arbitrary. The wigs admit an anxiety about identity and loss; they map integration, the civil rights movement right through to Vietnam and women’s rights. And they chart an emerging Afro-urban aesthetic where the Afro becomes this important way of taking up space in the city. But before that even, in the 1930s, wigs were called transformations. At that time Langston Hughes began writing about a recurring character called Simple who told stories that were revealing in their foolishness and earnestness. Simple is a simpleton who gets at the core of the truth, saying things like, “I don’t know why they call wigs ‘transformations,’ because I have seen some womens put on a wig and they were not transformed at all.”

It’s interesting to think of the resonance of these forms, but I’m not trying to make an archive like a librarian—a true archive. Really it’s about a resonance and dissonance between fiction and journalism. There are gaps in legibility that I experience too because I’m a post–civil rights child. These women are not just trying to be beautiful; they had to have these prosthetics. It’s about what you needed to go out the door, like you weren’t even reasonable until you put these on. You need to be transformed, constricted by the humiliation of your own hair or these things all over your skin. Nothing’s right! Your skin needs to be whitened, or you have acne or bunions . . . So overwhelming. Everything needs to be transformed just to be acceptable. For me the access to what I am reading is not about total access or readability. But as Toni Morrison says: Not all knowledge has to be learned firsthand. I’m lucky to have learned much secondhand.

There is this desire from some that black artists should tell the truth, be authentic, but there is actually a lack of authenticity that is crucial to my work. The wig advertisements have been revised, extricated from their sources and mutated in scale. And even the originals are copied, so that the primal, first principle is usually fake in my work. Just like the disembodied eyes and lips refer to performance, to bodies you cannot see, floating hostage in the electric black of the minstrel stage, for me the wigs link to that even though they have a realness to them. The wig ladies are fugitives, conscripts from another time and place, liberated from the “race” magazines of the past. But again, I have transformed them, here on the pages that once held them captive. Yet having access to journalistic signs burdens you with what trouble they could cause somebody else. That’s also why I tend to use archaic ephemera. I’m interested in signs not as static but as moving, as things that start with something that has already been discarded. And I try to make my images through that—the unruly cracks in the edifice, underneath which there is something to be protected.