Ellen Gallagher: Freud meets his interlocutor on a black planet

Tate Modern exhibition AxMe shows African American artist talking back to race and gender history

May 16, 2013

Ellen Gallagher: AxME
Tate Modern, London
Until 1 September

Ellen Gallagher is an acclaimed artist who, starting in the mid-1990s, has united various media with a range of subject matter to explore the place, and places, of African Americans.

AxME, the rather enigmatic title of Tate Modern’s new exhibition, is (to quote the accompanying literature) “a play on the black American vernacular for ‘ask’ as well as the Acme Corporation - the fictional mail- order company that supplies Wile E. Coyote with an endless series of traps and devices to capture Road Runner”. Gallagher’s own account is that she has presented her works, all of them concerned with the presence and absence of black history, in a non-chronological order that she likens to the repetitions of jazz, in which a musical narrative has a constant theme but returns to it in a variety of different ways. It is this variety of ways, and the absence of an over-determined understanding and portrayal of the past, that make this exhibition so engaging.

Both the central theme and the variety of representation are immediately apparent; although questions of black history inform all the work, there are contrasts and implicit confrontations between the form and the content of individual works. One of these contrasts is between the very explicit “yellow paintings” - the collective name for Double Natural (2002), Pomp-Bang (2003) and Afrylic (2004) - and the more lyrical series Watery Ecstatic (produced at various dates since 2001). The former are based on images in black magazines, reinterpreted by Gallagher’s various additions to the given text, while the latter conform more explicitly to conventional expectations and aesthetics. The “yellow paintings” are startling, abrasive and angry, while Watery Ecstatic consists of elegant, formal evocations of marine life derived from Gallagher’s study of oceanography. Visitors to the exhibition are left to imagine the connections between these two sets of work: Juliet Bingham, the curator of the exhibition, reminds us that yellow is the colour of exclusion.

In the light of the organising theme of black history, the works in all 11 rooms can be “read” as acts of resistance to those comfortable narratives of history that, in their language of the “granting” of freedom to slaves, or the vote to women, suggest a benign enlightenment that legitimates many of the locations of exploitative power. Resistance is the key feature of Gallagher’s subversion of the American advertisements that encouraged various forms of the commercial ordering of black bodies: from the skin creams of the 1970s (part of the subject matter of the “yellow paintings”) to the medicines of the early 21st century, the focus of Light’n’Write and Corns (both 2006) and Esirn Coaler (2007), which are designed to alleviate the pains of black bodies subjected to harsh regimes of work.

The distance between these two sets of advertisements is that between the emancipatory politics of the 1970s, with their dream of endlessly improving living standards and new forms of relations between races and genders, and the social realities of the early 21st century, when paid work is hard to come by and badly rewarded and gender and racial inequalities show little sign of disappearing. In Gallagher’s repetition of the caricatured lips and eyes of black vaudeville players, she places at the centre of her art those distorted representations that contributed to the abuse, in both work and medical experiments (the subject of her 2008 work An Experiment of Unusual Opportunity), of the bodies of black people.

A sense of how little has changed, in structural terms, in past decades (and indeed in past centuries) is present in the final room of the exhibition and in IGBT (2008). A circuit board from an audio amplifier is covered in gold. Within it are two figures that recall Western miniatures of the early 19th century. This presents a further intriguing aspect of Gallagher’s work: the androgyny of many of her figures. This also applies to the central character in Bird in Hand (2006), who is consistently read as “he”, and linked to Captain Ahab of Moby-Dick and Peg Leg Bates, a one- legged vaudeville dancer. Yet in looking at Gallagher’s image of a pirate, the intricate, lace-like work around his/her head suggests a complex, and non-gendered, person. That element of two-sidedness is also present in the Morphia series from 2008-12, in which Gallagher uses the physical impact of ink on paper to produce work with no evident “main” side.

These suggestions of the instability of the past and the present give this exhibition much of its vitality, most importantly because Gallagher does not attempt to reclaim a past or make a particular version of the past explicit. Memory is highly unstable - a point she makes in one of the first works in the exhibition, Odalisque (2005). Here she takes a photograph by Man Ray of Matisse, substitutes Freud for Matisse and gives the model who is being drawn (and whose dress suggests that she is from that most sexualised and most sexually unequal context, the harem) Gallagher’s own face. So as we walk in, we confront the image of a great narrator of the universal psychic world attempting - it would appear with some hesitation - to draw, and hence represent, an individual reality.

That one work gives us many possibilities to consider about what we can and cannot represent about ourselves and others, quite apart from questions about the authority of representation that underlies attempts to write history. Odalisque pays homage to Matisse (although he is lost as a person, he is regained through allusions to his work) and hence to Modernism, but it also allows for the very insecurity of the relationship between narrator and subject. Freud’s own fascination with a “lost” past is further elaborated in Abu Simbel (2005), where a print of the temple of Rameses II that once hung in Freud’s study is amended by the arrival of a cartoon-like spacecraft. But it is not just Freud’s involvement with the reclaiming of the past that is considered here: Abu Simbel also disrupts that version of black history that claims connecting lineages dating back to ancient Egypt.

These irreverent and playful connections are just two examples of the way in which Gallagher uses the many forms of her artistic range to resist loss - in this case of the particularity of African Americans - without reclaiming “the lost” in ways that are formed through stabilising, and eroding, pressures. Two examples illustrate this point. Discussing Oh! Susanna (1993), in which a black face is caricatured, Gallagher notes that the song was originally a lament for the destruction of the black family through slavery but became a song in which “the race element is erased”. The second example, Negroes Ask for German Colonies (2002) - in which women’s heads are made, literally, to “carry” assertions of black identity - is a tribute to the black writer Hubert Harrison, who poured scorn on the post-1918 proposal that reclaimed German territories should be given to descendants of African slaves. As he pointed out, this was something of a distraction from questions of inequality in the US. Almost a century later, as Gallagher’s work so brilliantly explores, we might reflect on our own politics of geographical space.

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