Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne at Centro Botin

Ellen Gallagher, DeLuxe (2004 – 2005) Grid of 60 photogravure, etching, aquatint and drypoints with lithography, screenprint, embossing, tattoo-machine engraving; some with additions of plasticine, watercolor, pomade and toy eyeballs 60 parts, each: 33 x 26.5 cm Overall: 215.26 cm x 447.04 cm Various collections Photo: ©2013 Alex Delfanne.

Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: A law… a blueprint… a scale

Centro Botin

April 14 through September 11, 2022

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, May 2022 

Ellen Gallagher’s syncretic show A law… a blueprint… a scale at Centro Botin in Santander, Spain imparts a cool love of haute volupté that suggests to me Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols pronouncement that “One is necessary, one is a piece of fate, one belongs to the whole, one is in the whole...”. This mid-career survey, curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz to include three film-based dark installations done with Dutch artist Edgar Cleijne, does not make you feel or think oneness; but rather allows you to think it through flexible feelings towards her fluid and diverse art. As far as unifying political identity art goes, it is the best at that I have seen in a long time because it is fundamentally poetic—expressive of a pre-linguistic wetness that unchains common codes and sends them afloat. A law… a blueprint… a scale is a form of Afrofuturism unchained that surfaces happy, promiscuous pleasure by looking to music, magic, and marine biology through the prism of free imagination. 

In her transformational paintings, Gallagher achieves these poetic re-connections through a situated burlesque enchantment with the fluidity of the shimmering sea. Take the painting Dew Breaker (2015) for example—it is tumultuous with a humorous consciousness of osmotic fusion that deflates ridged binary oppositions.  In her ongoing series of drawings, such as the recto/verso Morphia (2008-2012) that references the sludge doom music of the Dutch metal band Morphia and the dreamlike state morphine induces—and the Watery Ecstatic series begun in 2001—that could reference the liquid state of mind libations induce—Gallagher creates a surreal natural history of complex biomorphic forms she associates with Drexciya, a late-90s–early 2000s Detroit techno duo who developed a nautical Afrofuturist mythical underwater realm that imagined the afterlife of Atlantic slave trade tossed overboard. Drexciya later forked-off into the excellent electronica group Dopplereffekt whose Gesamtkunstwerk (1999) compilation release is highly recommended.   

Ellen Gallagher, Dew Breaker (2015) Pigment, ink, oil, graphite and paper on canvas 188,2 x 202,9 cm. © Ellen Gallagher. Courtesy the artist Photo © Ernst Moritz.

Through her quirky version of Afrofuturist cyberfeminism Gallagher implies a developing alliance between black women and a sea of networked technology in which she seems to prefer to embrace impurities, thus evading the widespread sense of stale futility and disenchantment felt today. Her black representation monochrome Black Paintings begun in 1998, such as Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop (2002), is a stylishly body of work probing with intimate precision a mesh of titanic turbulence as boldfaced as an oil slick afloat on the surface of the Black Sea. The other acme of her early work is the inclusion of the now classic DeLuxe (2004-5) grid portfolio that plays profoundly with African American clichés culled from the magazines Sepia, Our World, and Ebony. DeLuxe is outstanding in the luxury of its dynamic, non-compartmentalized, postulates and makes clear that for Gallagher pop culture has never been synonymous with some imperative promise of not only aesthetic liberation; but social, political, and even what we might call metaphysical liberation. Magnificent yet delicate, DeLuxe calls for a contemplation that yields to the panicky but palpable poetry that exists inside each of us. The irony is that pop cultural appeal is now an assumption that conspires to rob artists of the thing that should matter most to them: their freedom to risk unpleasantness.  

But the highpoint (and start) of the exhibition—and the core reason Gallagher told me she wanted to make this show at seaside Santander on the Cantabrian coast—is the inclusion of Highway Gothic (2019). It is a dark immersive meditative roll down under the funky Interstate 10, which crosses the Mississippi Delta and skirts New Orleans. Highway Gothic has the fulfilling telos of total-art. It is composed of swampy alchemical-like 16mm film projections and moody blue cyanotype printed paintings that dangle along with printed 70mm film stock in the presence of shinning blue light box images. The indigo cyanotypes, whose nuanced tones vary according to the soft variations of the northern sunlight of Rotterdam where they were made, took my mind to those made by Susan Weil and Robert Rauschenberg in 1951 and seem to be projections of human consciousness itself disguised as sun and shade. The superb shoegaze sludge song Sick Child by Circle, a heady Finnish metal band worth heeding, kicks in every so often as a small boat with a lone bearded man slides down the bayou—enlivening the installation a notch and transforming it into what can become an addictive syncretic involvement. The experience alerts attention to the bad ecological and cultural implications of Interstate 10 (the southernmost cross-country highway in the American Interstate Highway System) and how the immobile poor get squeezed by big changes the hardest. If the goal of Highway Gothic was to embody trans-subjective political space through the mixed-while-unified gens de couleur libres identity of Louisiana Creoles—that mirror Gallagher’s own mixed-race genetic history (though she hails from Providence, Rhode Island)—its reciprocal hybrid perturbations works brilliantly. In Highway Gothic a kind of bluesy posttraumatic American unity emerges, rich in ecological and cultural implications that include a post-human post-anthropocentric worldview that doesn’t abandon the subjective but decenters it into new forms of community. What disappears when thinking through Gallagher in not her maternal material black body but a cliché notion of it. 

Ellen Gallagher, Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop (2002) rubber, paper & enamel on linen, 244 x 305 cm.

Outside Centro Botin, under a wing of Renzo Piano’s cool looking yet functional building (2017) that might resemble a sleek stereo system, there is a black rubber-engraved blocky hut that holds another Cleijne-Gallagher collaboration, Osedax (2010). A, by comparison, minor early film projection of 16mm film and two slide projections. But for me the show had already ended on a nonsensical high note of decadent disembodiment with Better Dimension (2010)—a tour d’ force ad hoc viewing room whose external wooden panels are silkscreened with texts and graphic art based on broadsheets and pamphlets of the African-American slight-of-hand magician Black Herman (aka Benjamin Rucker, who died in 1934) and the great avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra. Better Dimension is formidable in its versatile span. Inside, while grooving on Sun Ra’s 1982 satiric and hip track Nuclear War, Gallagher’s projected painted slides and a weirdly spinning John F. Kennedy head that hovered above a spinning black vinyl LP catch the eye. Better Dimension read to me as a parody of starry-eyed NFT substitute fetishism, where ephemeral documentation stands in for the ontological thing. It spaced out art’s characteristic immediacy with free-flowing, explosive, playful, and profound connections that swim in your head. The question it raises is not whether we will become post-human—for post-humanity is already long here—but, what kind of post-humans we will be? But what I appreciated most about Better Dimension is its romantic reference to a deep time and space. Like Gallagher’s fluid identity paintings and drawings, it suggests a lush life of nonverbal existence that moves internally and invisibly within our embodied situation.

Ellen Gallagher & Edgar Cleijne, Highway Gothic (2019) Film installation with projected 16mm film, and printed blueprints on 70mm film, textile panels and resin light boxes. Variable dimensions © Edgar Cleijne & Ellen Gallagher.

Perhaps Better Dimension is the artist’s involvement with her posthumous self as a mythical and metaphysical depth as mysterious as the sea. For with A law… a blueprint… a scale I recognized again that art need not be understandable or even meaningful in order to be good or important.  It is worth noting that damage has been done—above all to artists but also to public taste—by trying to explain everything artistic. Through its flamboyant, theoretical avant-gardism, A law… a blueprint… a scale asks audacious ontological questions about how the body is staged in different realities. It does not definitively answer those questions. Its flamboyant adventurousness embraces the fluidity of ambiguity, difference, and contradiction while promoting concepts of the collective and communal matrix. It is rich in connective lyricism and sympathetic imperatives where once apparent conflicting ideas and intellectual positions are mitigated in poly-rational interplay.  

The law, blueprint, and scale of A law… a blueprint… a scale is imminence. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest double LP has recently been released on Pentiments, and his new book of poetry Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by punctum books. He is currently exhibiting his Viral Venture animation at the Micro Mondes exhibition at the musée du quai Branly in Paris and will be exhibiting virus-modeled a-life paintings at Galerie Richard in Paris in an exhibition called Tournant de la tempête virale (Turning the Viral Tempest) in September and October.

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