by Christopher Hutchinson
The American artist Ellen Gallagher is admired to the point of reverence on the other side of the Atlantic. Her distinctive combination of politics and prettiness has been catnip for collectors and critics alike these last 20 years. For the latter, there is always so much to talk about – her range of references from Moby Dick and Sol LeWitt to Black Power and Detroit techno, her trademark restyling of 50s ads and 60s sci-fi movies, her evident if excessively elusive intellectualism – all appealingly couched, to collectors, in the delicate aesthetic of her paintings and prints.
It is worth knowing about this high regard when visiting Gallagher’s retrospective at Tate Modern. It helps to explain the sheer scale of the event: almost 100 works, many of them multi-part, accompanied by a catalogue of eulogies by some of America’s finest art writers, and all kicked off by a gigantic blown-up reprise of Man Ray’s famous photograph of Matisse sketching an odalisque in harem pants on a couch with Gallagher’s own face pasted on to the model and Sigmund Freud in the role of Matisse.https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/may/05/ellen-gallagher-axme-tate-review
Note1-Painter & Videographer
This investigation comes about after an Atlanta,GA based non-profit Smoke School of Art’s weekly homework assignment and is primarily based on the “Brilliant Ideas” video and the well written review of her retrospective by Laura Cummings. Cummings does an excellent job of sifting through the multiple layers of sentiment and projections heaped unto this mediocre artist that validates Gallagher as the “most recognized African American painter since the nineties”. These notes take the well-articulated points by Cummings and the fodder present in Gallagher’s dialogue and points out the inadequacies that are consistent through Gallagher’s career.
Gallagher’s work makes one think fondly on the kitsch-laiden work of Romare Bearden. Once again this cut and paste mediocre practice of collage is proven to be the breeding ground of knick knack collectibles.
The gridded collage above, Gallagher’s breakthrough piece, is an indicator of her true interest which has nothing to do with painting. No painter’s painter would be satisfied with this attempt at painting. Collage does not operate on the interest of painters who enjoy painting. So why does Gallagher retain “reverence” status as a painter? Cummings answers this question with nods to minimalist artists such as Agnes Martin’s still abstract grid paintings. It is a stretch of the imagination to include this comparison as valid because the success of Martin’s work is due to the primacy of paint. Martin would never cut and paste these transitions.
That distinction may not seem like much of a distinction but Martin never felt the need to move to the violent act of cutting a canvas to apply such a coarse transition as Gallagher. When an artist feels the need to abandon the primacy of a medium to plop down texture it is an indicator of lack of mastery. It is an indicator of an obvious inadequacy. This inadequacy then begs to be overlooked relying heavily on sentiment and the projection of others to overcome it. Without mentioning “minstrels” are these paintings good? No.
- A school of abstract painting and sculpture that emphasizes extreme simplification of form, as by the use of basic shapes and monochromatic palettes of primary colors, objectivity, and anonymity of style. Also called ABC art, minimal art, reductivism, rejective art.
- Use of the fewest and barest essentials or elements, as in the arts, literature, or design.
- Music A style of music marked by extreme simplification of rhythms, patterns, and harmonies, prolonged chordal or melodic repetitions, and often a trancelike effect. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Minimalist+art
Gallagher’s rough application is an aversion to minimalist practice, an aversion to Martin, Lewitt, and many others. Again, this comparison to these amount to nothing more than name dropping to force a conversation that is not there. Minimalist seeks to reduce and subtract mediums and ideas to its purest form. Gallagher’s laborious, often clumsy steps, amount to a contrived additive process where emphasis is placed on the quantity of labor not an interest in a stringent pursuit in her praxis.
Prior knowledge for this show. An entire gallery, for instance, is hung with numerous editions of what appear to be pretty much the same work: sheets of lined exercise paper glued to canvases, sometimes lacquered, sometimes painted fetching colours and sometimes featuring racial caricatures of big lips and bug-eyes. These mouths and eyes are always tiny and sometimes so faint as to be spectral, which carries its own meaning. Gallagher describes them as “the disembodied ephemera of minstrelsy”.https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/may/05/ellen-gallagher-axme-tate-review
Cumming’s articulates the above observation of Gallagher’s well. If Gallagher’s work requires prior knowledge of all sorts turns out to be a requisite to be received, then how can she be a great artist? A great resource maybe, like the Dewey decimal system–a way to access library books on several unrelated topics that have minute correlations to each other. Research should be a prominent part of every artist’s practice, but if it is a requirement for the viewer to do the same then that artist has not communicated properly, or it so generic and populous that everyone can create their own narrative. The sprinkling of buzzwords that are racially charged with advertising amounts those unimaginative juxtapositions of surrealists who exploited the indigenous primitive imagery to access their subconscious. This type of practice is just lazy.
This essay continues next month with “Postcolonial Thoughts: Notes on Ellen Gallagher, Part 2.”
Christopher Hutchinson is an accomplished Jamaican conceptual artist, professor and contributor to the art community as a writer, critic and founder of the nonprofit Smoke School of Art. He is a Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and has been featured as a lecturer including prestigious engagements at University of Alabama and the Auburn Avenue Research Library. For two decades, Chris has been a practicing artist. His works have been exhibited in internationally recognized institutions including City College New York (CUNY) and featured at the world’s leading international galleries such as Art Basel Miami. He has always had an innate passion for creating spaces where Africans and people of African descent contribute to an inclusive contemporary dialogue—ever evolving, not reflexive but pioneering. This requires challenging the rubric of the canon of art history, a systemic space of exclusion for the Other: women and non-Whites, and where necessary he rewrites it. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama.