Ellen Gallagher’s art explores issues of race, identity and transformation. Renowned for her reworking of popular black imagery, Gallagher draws on postwar magazines and advertising, as well as film and music culture. She makes repeated reference to the traditions of minstrelsy, as well as to specific performers such as vaudeville star Bert Williams and jazz musician Sun Ra. Pages from mid-century black photomagazines such as Ebony, Our World and Sepia - all dominated by advertisements for Afro hairstyles, wigs and skin products aimed at African-American women - are often cited in her investigation of the anxieties and tensions surrounding black identity in the age of consumerism. Historically specific cultural references are merged with Gallagher’s own personal biography as a black Irish American woman.
This survey exhibition takes an overview of Gallagher’s practice, exploring the themes which have emerged and recurred from her seminal early canvases, to her ‘wigmap’ grid collages, through to recent film installations and new bodies of work. The exhibition will include such key works as Bird in Hand 2006, a complex relief built up in layers of printed matter, plasticine, crystal, paint and gold leaf. In Bird in Hand, human life and marine life converge at the bottom of the ocean in a mythical black Atlantis.
Gallagher’s mysterious vision of marine life extends beyond the canvas and into other media, such as the 16mm film installation Murmur 2003-4, created in collaboration with Edgar Cleijne, as well as the ongoing series of delicate watercolours and cut paper works entitled Watery Ecstatic. The large-scale sculptural installation Jungle Gym/Preserve 2001 will also be on display, which appears to be an abstract matrix of white poles, but on closer inspection becomes an intricate network of symbols referencing the traditions of whale-bone carving. New and recent work on display for the first time at Tate Modern, including Morphia, a series of two-sided drawings, will also show how Gallagher combines the intimate with the epic, the urban with the oceanic, the ethereal with the physical and history with the present.
Ellen Gallagher was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1965 and now lives and works in Rotterdam and New York. Solo exhibitions of her work have included those held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York andNew Museum,New York. She was awarded the Joan Mitchell Fellowship in 1997 and an American Academy Award in Art in 2000 and her work is held in many major public collections, including MoMA, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts,Boston; and Centre Pompidou, Paris.
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