Ellen Gallagher at Tate Modern

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the Tate galleries press office, asking if I would like to attend a couple of their upcoming press days to preview some new exhibitions.

On 30th April I travelled up to London to see the new Ellen Gallagher exhibition, AxME, at the Tate Modern. This is rather a special exhibition as it’s Gallagher’s first major retrospective in the UK. I arrived at 10am and so had an hour to stroll around the near empty gallery rooms to see the exhibition for myself. At 11am the curator Juliet Bingham kindly took us round a few of the pieces as part of a curator’s tour.

Exterior of Tate Modern with Ellen Gallagher exhibition poster

The exhibition brings together a hundred or so of Gallagher’s pieces featuring themes to do with nature & black social history amongst others.

Gallagher uses a number of different techniques and mediums to produce her pieces. From 16mm films, multiple layers of magazine cuttings, plasticine and even gold leaf. 

Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher
Afrylic – 2004

The ‘yellow paintings’ (so-called as they heavily feature bright yellow plasticine) are particularly eye-catching. They utilise cutout advertisements for wigs, skin creams and other products from well known African American magazines such as Ebony, Our World and Black Stars. These cutouts are then overlaid with bright yellow plasticine ‘wigs’. These collage pieces address issues of identity amongst African American women. The colour yellow is used as a significant colour in addressing issues of race, and it can even be seen to hint at the yellow ‘Star of David’ worn by Jewish prisoners of war.

Detail of Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher
Detail of Afrylic – 2004

Some of the works are presented on penmanship paper, a type of paper typically used to help small children when learning how to write. This is an interesting choice, as over time, the lines on the paper will eventually fade. The artist enjoys this idea as it takes away her control of the pieces. This will be particularly obvious in the piece entitled ‘Bubbel’.

Bubbel by Ellen Gallagher
Bubbel – 2001

One of the themes that really piqued my interest is that of the image of a peg leg man. The peg leg character is seen in different incarnations throughout Gallagher’s work. As Peg Leg Bates (the famous Vaudeville tap dancer) he is in one of the ‘yellow paintings’ in room 2 and he then features as a Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) style pirate in ‘Bird in Hand’.

Bird in Hand by Ellen Gallagher
Bird in Hand – 2006

The pirate in ‘Bird in Hand’ is surrounded by underwater objects such as seaweed and other sea plants (this is a link to Gallagher’s Watery Ecstatic series seen later in the exhibition). This piece uses layers of magazine cuttings, but also uses a more unusual medium, Himalayan rock salt. The salt is a reference to not only the sea, but the body, as rock salt has the same mineral composition as the human body. This is piece is shown directly opposite one entitled ‘s’Odium’ which ties in the idea of the sea and the use of salt in ‘Bird in Hand’.

Detail of Bird in Hand by Ellen Gallagher
Detail of Bird in Hand – 2006

The other theme that interested me was the image of the nurse. This begins with a painting entitled ‘An Experiment of Unusual Opportunity’. This piece references the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where African American men who had previously contracted syphilis, thought they were taking part in a public health scheme. In fact they were never told they had the disease nor were they ever treated for it. As the health professionals running the scheme were aware of what was going on, the figure of the nurse became that of a trickster.

DeLuxe by Ellen Gallagher
DeLuxe – 2004-5

The image of the nurse is used later in a piece comprised of 60 framed works, ‘DeLuxe’. Here the nurse is actually depicted, with a menacing face, a reference back to ‘An Experiment of Unusual Opportunity’.

Detail of DeLuxe by Ellen Gallagher
Detail from DeLuxe – 2004-5
Detail of DeLuxe by Ellen Gallagher
Detail from DeLuxe – 2004-5

These are a few of my favourite pieces from the exhibition.

IGBT by Ellen Gallagher
IGBT – 2008

Morphia by Ellen Gallagher
Morphia – 2008-12
Watery Ecstatic by Ellen Gallagher
Watery Ecstatic – 2003

I highly recommend going along to the Tate Modern to see this exhibition. It runs until 1st September and is £11 entry, tickets can be booked in advance here.


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