New York

Ellen Gallagher

Drawing Center

Blubber lips, hot-dog lips, Sambo lips. They used to call them “nigger lips” in the South (and probably still do)—just writing the words brings back the pain of racism that’s pervasive and in your face. Now, ironically, white people have their lips injected full of collagen to get that big-lip look; think of Angelina Jolie’s “pillow lips.” There’s a whole lot of bite in the difference between “nigger lips” and “pillow lips,” one an epithet of derision, the other of desirability. The defacing racial stereotypes of the Jim Crow South don't stop, of course, with cartoon renderings of bulbous lips, protruding eyes, and wild hair, but extend to tales of mythically proportioned genitalia and sexual appetite to match.

Ellen Gallagher, like a number of other artists of color navigating the mostly white waters of the art world, finds fodder in the debased emblems of racism. The “lips” that litter her elegant paintings have become as much her trademark as “blips” were for Richard Artschwager. They were prominent throughout “Preserve,” an exhibition organized by the Des Moines Art Center (the Drawing Center is the final stop) consisting of some two dozen mixed-media works on ad pages from old black-culture magazines; a foldout “artist's paper” titled The Preserver, which lists Gallagher as editor-in-chief; and a large gridded sculpture like a jungle gym (her first three-dimensional work). Gallagher’s voice has never been stronger or more political with respect to color and gender; in particular, her address to the circumstances of being both black and female scripts the way for her signature lips to morph back and forth between “nigger lips” and “pussy lips” (with “pillow lips” falling somewhere in between), which makes for by far the most subversive content in her art to date.

The mock gazette and the paper collages put us in touch with Gallagher’s source material and have the feel of collateral studio work—raw, funny, bitching, belligerent. With flash points that read variously like graffiti, doodling, craft work, and child's play (albeit by an obsessive juvenile delinquent), Gallagher’s “pages” are documents of transformation, twice over. The advertisements she selects—from such publications as Ebony, Black Digest, and Our World—pitch glamour wigs for women of color and promise instant beauty with images of presumably formerly ordinary black women who suddenly resemble stars of the silver screen. Trumping these transformations, Gallagher goes to work with Wite-Out and black ink, plasticine and pomade, stick-on toy eyes, paper patches and cutouts, recasting bevies of beauties as hordes of aliens and monsters. The freak show Gallagher creates is both wickedly hilarious and terribly poignant. There’s no escaping the horror, the stigma, the self-loathing associated with being black and female, whether we regard the ads themselves as prima facie evidence or apprehend the idea of abjection through Gallagher’s “erasures.”

There’s menacing exactitude in Gallagher’s cancellations and condemnations, as she whites out the women's eyes or paints serpent tongues sprouting from their mouths. In Ice or Salt/Curl Cascade, 2001, the faces are entirely blacked out and surrounded by painted-on, black-and-pink “pussy lips” that crowd out most of the copy, except for a word here and there—FLUFF, DARLING, NEW YOU, LIONESS. In A ha o girl oo, 2001, the beautiful faces of women wearing “real” hairpieces by “Howard Tresses” are disfigured by huge gashes—the result of having been cut out and awkwardly glued back on—but adorned with pairs of fresh, hot pink lips.

Gallagher’s lips engorge with potential to speak about anger and jouissance as well as abjection. On a page of The Preserver, she overlays dated advertisements with; among other things, contemporary lyrics from Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown, two of the reigning queens of hip-hop. Both talk about empowerment in hard-core street vernacular. When we see Lil' Kim say, NO LICKY LICKY NO STICKY STICKY or TELL ME WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND / WHEN YOUR TONGUE’S IN THE PUSSY, it’s clear that the voice in Gallagher’s work is well on its way to becoming a chorus.

Jan Avgikos