New York

Ellen Gallagher

Gagosian Gallery (21)

SLYLY LOVELY AND PERVERSELY INDIRECT, Ellen Gallagher's work concerns inscription and sign systems and addresses the fragmentations and provocations of racialized identity. She belongs to a generation of young artists who infuse Minimalist form with corporeal, social, and emotive content: The apparent serenity of her large, airy paintings exists in tension with the marginalia yielded by a closer look—snippets of nasty minstrelsy, secret doodles, and ragged grids of grade-school penmanship paper. In these nine canvases, comprising the artist's third exhibition in New York all this and more was on display.

The show was titled “Blubber,” a word evocative of clumsy grief and Melville's well-known chapter on “The Whiteness of the Whale”—not to mention Judy Blume's tale of particularly female grammar-school cruelty. Resonant with but not circumscribed by these citations, Blubber, 2000, is a rhythmic, lyrical painting, with a comma-like shape repeating in collaged paper and dollops of black ink. Here—as in They could still serve, 2000, a field of pink-stained notebook sheets, and ly, 2000, a more directly calligraphic piece—Gallagher lets a minimal palette of Greamy, rosy, chalky, and occasionally bilious color do most of the signifying. Alluring and somewhat fearsomely empty, the shifting flesh-and-paper tonalities hold the images at a liminal point where the bodily shades toward the semiotic. This infusion of subjective meaning into “pure” materials also shapes Gallagher's black panels, bling bling, 2001, and the diptych Dance you monster, 2000. Encased in their glossy surfaces are accretions of cutout rubber dots like whirlwinds of blowing hair. An anthropomorphic echo hovers around the silhouette of a tree. Portrait, pastoral, or scene of a lynching? None of the above? The pale surfaces are scarified and delicate, while the black ones are tarry, reflective, unfathomable. The former summon, then elude the gaze; the latter totalize and swallow it. Whatever associations such obvious black/white oppositions may stimulate in her viewers, Gallagher invites but refuses to resolve them.

This practice of instituting and then tweaking or emptying symbol systems undergirds the artist's use of a personal, rebuslike lexicon. Those who have followed Gallagher's work will have learned, for example, that Blubber's “commas” stand for a cartoonish wig, a glyph for “girl,” while the “eyes” and ellipsoid “lips” (seen here in Spoor, 2001, Purgatorium, 2000, and Bubbel, 2001) notate the caricatured and dismembered black body. As carriers of political content, Gallagher's stylized marks have always been vexed, because unless the viewer is told what they are supposed to represent, they don't quite represent it. This has meant that the images rely on an extravisual critical apparatus in order to read as intended, and it's inevitably problematic when the press release provides the key to a viewing experience.

It is not Gallagher's mandate, however, to illustrate simplistic sociopolitical propositions. Do her cryptic extrapolations of violent clichés encourage interest in thinking about race, sensuality, and representation? The answer, for this viewer at least, is yes, because they force us to consider our assumption (or wish)
that statements about race should be readily cognizable—that is, consumable. On the contrary, these paintings are elusive, ambiguously pleasurable, private. Now, perversely, the more her quiet surfaces and their complicated meanings harmonize, the more beauty threatens to become a liability for Gallagher. Loveliness is her strength; she can afford to play against it. Something dangerous and raucous remains crucial to her mix.

Frances Richard