Ellen Gallagher New Works
14 March – 3 May 2014
Hauser & Wirth, London
By SOPHIE HILL APR. 2014
Gallagherʼs exhibition ʻNew Worksʼ brings together many of her distinct and investigative techniques. So varied are the works in approach, that a wall splits the exhibition in two; dividing the space between the Racketeer paintings and the rest of the show – three large and inquisitive collages that surround a film projection. Far from appearing disjointed, the effect is to spread Gallagherʼs explorations before us: taking us through the meticulous processes that probe her ideas.
The five Racketeer paintings are set off by the larger Glean: a gluttonous and imposing tangle of intestine-like entrails that gleefully rise into a black abyss – the consistent background of this series of paintings. The pinks and reds of these innards are illuminated against this surrounding darkness, the blood raw and bright – gorily exposing. The violence of these fleshy masses is intensified by Gallagherʼs technique, layers of paint spread, slashed and scratched away, a painful unfolding of the history of their making. Anger and frustration, like that that lies behind a heavily layered wall of graffiti, fuels this process of working, so these entrails appear pumping, teeming with ideas and energy. In Glean dead straight lines, gleaming in gold leaf, are directed like lasers between the beaks of 4 birds – a web, or glowing symbol, of communication.
The small birds of Glean are echoed throughout the Racketeer paintings, as each features one in a different stance; Gallagherʼs exploration of their “symbiotic feeding habits”. The birds are cast of a black that gleams luxuriously against the absorbing darkness of the background; they appear jewel-like, as pieces of mythical jet caught in the canvas. Their bodies shine as lacquer, a juxtaposition to the raw textures that surround them. As the scraped and laboured surface of flesh speaks through its layering, the birds are scattered with stolen letters – vowels from othersʼ ideas (they are cut from magazines). Twinkling as eyes, or speckles across a birdʼs back, as each ʻoʼ is read it softly exhales its soothing phonetic sound. Though these works are filled with birds, the collective possibilities of such internal gore – we donʼt know what anyone looks like on the inside – bestows these paintings an encompassing feeling of all nature; they represent the habits of our natural world.
Separating the two halves of the exhibition is Ark, a double-sided work (though we can only see one side) made up of layered magazine pages. The side we can see is the decaying yellow of a Cutty Sark whisky advertisement, though Gallagher disrupts recognition by punching out holes then reinserting their innards the other way round. The pale washed-out pink of the back of the work is thus pushed out through the front, in a pattern marked by its own physicality. The circles formed are organically different, pausing to pull faces, playful in their action of reversal. The meticulous care taken in the making, the unpacking and putting back together, paired with the jovial and seemingly nonsensical results, epitomises the exhibition, where meaning is built through process.
The second half of the exhibition is made up of large collaged canvases; Untitled is the first, the scale of which is immediately striking. Not only is the work itself huge but the shapes that float across it; we are left feeling small as an unknown world unfolds before us. The canvas is stretched, bleached to a pale and dreamy blue – under the same spell as the washed pink of Ark – drawn over with horizontal lines like that of writing paper. There is something wonderfully naïve about having a base of lined paper, where the early crux of ideas are formed, scribbled and explored. It is upon this pool of blue that Gallagherʼs collaged forms float, spreading like globules of oil with shimmering colours. Colour is inset amongst black, built up in a meticulous and laborious layering, thickening to appear three-dimensional upon the surface of the canvas. These organic shapes arch, curl and contort; with eyes, tails and the delicate fingers of a white claw, these creatures move with personality and purpose. The remaining two canvases Stabilizing Spheres and Dr. Blowfinʼs Black Storm take their titles from a track on a 2002 EP by music duo Drexciya, ʻDr. Blowfinsʼ Black Storm Stabilizing Spheresʼ. Stabilizing Spheres is all movement, the lines of the hazy background – a sky with wispy white clouds – tumble in all directions, creating sweeping layers that fall over one another. It is from behind these that creatures, black with waving tendrils, peek out surreptitiously. On the adjacent wall is Dr. Blowfin himself, black gathering before us with slanted coloured eyes, unblinking.
Gallagherʼs absorbing canvases are accompanied by the rhythmical beat of Nothing Is…, her and Edgar Cleijneʼs film projection, which takes its title and inspiration from Sun Raʼs 1970 album and poem. The beat (spoken through a hand-made harp tuned to the key of Ra) speeds up as the film draws to an end; the probing and philosophical words of Sun Ra glowing in blue within each frame – indeed, Gallagher has scratched them into the film itself. Exploring the elements – “the nothing and the air and the fire” – the poem describes the morphing, the transcendence, of each state into the next. This evolution of state and being mirrors Gallagherʼs reworking, reinventing of material, where nothing is ever made of one thing. Meaning is thus gathered across many spheres, channelling each work with the veins of ideas, and so Gallagherʼs work pulses with life.
Sophie Hill is founder of postcardwall, an online publication about art inspired by postcards. Sophie has curated exhibitions for galleries in London and New York, and regularly writes text for artists. Sophie graduated from the University of York in 2009 with a BA in History of Art & English Literature; she lives and works in London.
view all articles from this author