New York

Ellen Gallagher

Gagosian Gallery (21)

Ellen Gallagher’s art has always involved insinuating content into modernist formats once cherished for emptying content out—for transcending the world’s mess. An apparently abstract line, for example, may in her hands break up into a row of tiny lips or eyes, their shapes close to racist caricature. Gallagher’s earlier work relied on the tension between the deliberately problematic comedy of these miniaturized and therefore surreptitious infiltrators and the overall elegance of her objects, often luxurious in scale and surface. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, as Julie Andrews taught, and Gallagher had it both ways, wrapping refined abstractions around the bitter pill of history.

Along with a beautiful group of works on paper and a set of short films, Gallagher here showed large-scale works, part of a series begun in 2001, that take a long step forward from the superficially proper behavior of her earlier paintings while retaining their basic approach. The format she’s now exploiting is the grid, a visual tool with obvious antecedents in ’60s Minimalism and Pop but also in earlier geometric abstraction. The grid connotes order and regularity, yet now much more than before, Gallagher’s subversive additions overpower the scene. Viewed from a distance, the works appear as mottled fields of misshapen, yellowish blotches. Move close and universal structure gives way to social particularity: Each of the grid’s 396 rectangles is a found ad, and each ad is doctored by the application of a Plasticine prosthesis, most often involving a figure’s hair. Indeed, the ads, which date from the ’30s through the ’70s, are often for wigs and hair treatments, though some promote cures for maladies from acne to asthma, while others offer more generalized relief from what ails you through promises of possibility—MAKE EXTRA MONEY, say, or just ENJOYMENT. In all cases, though, their target market is black.

African-American hair is a subject of recognized complexity that has generated volumes of scholarly writing, but the viewer without mastery of the literature, or for that matter without personal experience of black hair, may still be engrossed. Gallagher has an enormous vocabulary of shapes, and the transmutations of her blobby wigs from frame to frame have a novelistic or, rather, comic book–like flow: We are asked to decipher a narrative, spatial rather than sequential, that charts the stylistic variation exercised by a certain population over a certain period of time. Verbal elements, though subordinate, play a role by supplying a subtext of deprivation and aspiration. There’s grotesquerie in Gallagher’s dos—heightened by the distortion of the figures’ eyes, which appear as white mandorla shapes—and the writing that remains legible from the ads phrases their strangeness as a social contortion visited on folk by their situation in the Americas.

But that’s far from the whole story: There’s fabulousness here, too. The inventiveness within repetition in these works is a virtue in itself, and its associations are multidirectional, seeming to reach from ancient Egypt to Sun Ra. In Monster, 2003, one of Gallagher’s short films (made with Edgar Cleijne), alien invaders take on largely human shapes; “Don’t be afraid,” one of them says, “it is within our power to look like you or anyone.” Yet these invaders are utterly separated from the film’s earthly white protagonists by their incandescent whitish-yellowish hair. It’s the same with the figures in the paintings: Part everyday sufferers, whether from bunions or blasted hopes, these characters are also powerful unearthly presences.

David Frankel