Afrofuturism and the sex life of the coral – in the wild spirit of Ellen Gallagher | Art
Ttalk to Ellen gallagher about her paintings is a multidimensional slalom race: we move from the social life of images to the sex life of coral and the transport of slaves across oceans and centuries. At the moment, his last works are all finished and are sung through a gallery floor before separating into museums or private collections.
There are only five paintings on display at the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in London, but they epitomize two years of “hard, physical work” and decades of reflection, tapping into a deeply personal mythology that she developed from from Afrofuturist fiction, marine biology, random song lyrics and the struggles of his ancestors to give black people a proper place in the world.
“The social life of paintings, you know, is pretty amazing,” she says, from her studio in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, where she instead had fun directing the installation via a video link. “There is that period of time when they will be visible. And I’m very aware that that’s really all I get as an artist. That’s when they come out of the studio and exist together as I wanted, before they go out into the world and have that other life. There is a sad side to all of this. “I’ve always been very jealous of writers because when you write something it’s yours forever, whereas sometimes paintings can go private for a very long time.” But then she reconsiders: “Historically, paintings end up in truly magical spaces. “
Gallagher’s mind, like his art, crackles with connections across time and space. “Her work is like jazz on a huge canvas,” wrote poet Jackie Kay on the eve of a major exhibition of her work at Tate Liverpool in 2007. “She paints riffs, rehearsals and choruses. Trauma is presented in the form of patterns, repeated cycles, viral forms. Despite everything our interview is about Zoom, Gallagher continues to leap forward to find a work of art, historical evidence to demonstrate a point. Talking about magical spaces reminds him The 1867 painting by Cézanne Le Nègre Scipion. The painting is now in the Brazilian city of São Paulo, but how did it get there, when its first owner is known to have been Cézanne’s impressionist colleague Claude Monet? “It was so special to Monet that he kept it in his bedroom, where he had his favorite works. And then end up in Brazil, where some scholars were not aware of its existence? It is such an important work in their collection, it resurfaces more and more in our appreciation of Cézanne.
Resurfacing is a key concept for the artist, extending far beyond the physical whereabouts of a painting to what that painting does and how we receive and process information. The Negro Scipio’s bare back is reminiscent of the lumpy keloid scars that characterize her work from a series of all-black textured paintings she made in 1998 to illustrate the psychosis of race relations in history and its place in Western abstraction. . art. Scars resurface in two of her latest photos as visceral brown ties between the disembodied heads of women. Chosen in shimmering palladium foil, the heads are themselves a resurfacing of traditional fang figurines of the Congo. But in a time as tumultuous as ours, resurfacing also reflects changes in the way we look at things, she says. “We see it differently now, I think. Mmmm. Mmmm.
Two of the new paintings, both watercolors, are part of a long-running series, Watery Ecstatic, which combines marine biology with an Afrofuturist mythology created in 1997 by a techno group from Detroit, Drexciya. He imagines a black Atlantis, inhabited by the descendants of pregnant women from West Africa who were thrown overboard during the crossings of the Middle Passage to America. The paintings sparkle with bubble-like shapes which, in Gallagher’s own improvisation on mythology, have come to symbolize the lost Babylon of the future children of these drowned slaves. They are like eyes watching us.
While the paintings are beautiful on their own, with a presence not seen in the reproduction, you need some familiarity with its recurring patterns to fully understand them. In one, two octopuses – one floating and benign and the other ominously coiled on the ocean floor – are separated by what I consider strands of green algae. I look, but do I see? Well, no, she said tactfully. In fact, it’s “whale fall” – the decaying carcasses of cetaceans that become an essential part of the ocean’s food as they drift down to the seabed. “When an adult whale dies and moves through the water columns, it is of course eaten. And when it arrives in the abyssal zone, it becomes another source of life, its own ecosystem, to be harvested. For the creatures out there that don’t get a lot of light or nutrients, the whale carcass is the primary food source. So what I’m actually looking at are whale bones. About the paintings with the palladium heads, she says, “What I was actually thinking when I made them was coral spawning. Yeah, the coral sex life.
Gallagher’s fascination with marine biology predates his life as an artist. Born in 1965 in Providence, Rhode Island, to an Irish Catholic mother and a United States-born father of West African Cape Verdean descent, she dropped out of a creative writing degree for an art school. after spending a semester studying and drawing night sea snails aboard a huge commercial fishing schooner. His octopuses look both real and iconic of the monsters in the unexplored corners of colonial maps.
She described her work process both as the scrimshaw (the art of sailors carving the bones and tusks of marine mammals) and as the “model airplane painting school”. It is a difficult undertaking, which involves the gluing, gouging and ridging of materials on a signature background of calligraphic paper with blue lines. To accommodate the scale of the paintings, she dug a trench in the floor of her studio, so that she could move her canvases up and down, hitting and scratching on both sides. “There’s the official Ellen Gallagher, which is the side I’m showing you. And then there’s this other side that’s all patched up, ”she says. “And there’s a very unsettling time in the life of a painting where that’s actually the best side.”
In non-Covid time, Gallagher divides her time between Brooklyn and Rotterdam, where she lives, and sometimes works, with Dutch photographer Edgar Cleijne. “To me it’s the darkest city in Europe,” she says – a seaport that carries a huge amount of freight from merchant history despite being completely rebuilt after WWII. His engagement with the Netherlands extends to his art – the Flemish primitives with their devils, who were “more of a disturbance than a physical caricature of a devil”, and 17th century merchant painters, like Albert Eckhout, who traveled with court in the 1630s to document their conquest of Brazil by drawing its people, flora and fauna. “I see this as a kind of mapping. For us, this is forensic evidence of the birth of the plantations.
In her thinking, her materials and her whole way of working, she has to deal with such heavy things. Is she ever tempted to put everything away and do something frivolous? “It’s very funny,” she replies. “Do you know when I was in school in 1993, [the artist] Kiki Smith asked me the exact same question. And now, we are in 2021. And you just asked me again? So what was his response? “Oh, I just laughed,” she said, “I laughed then and I laugh now”.
She concedes that her work is indeed heavy. “I have been working for a very long time and feel very lucky to be in conversation all these years with the amazing people who have supported the work, but I also think there are those who would say it is quite frivolous. You know, it’s paint after all, huh?