Ellen Gallagher is one of the most acclaimed contemporary artists to have emerged from North America since the mid-1990s. She brings together imagery from myth, nature, art and social history to create complex works in a wide variety of media, including painting, drawing, relief, collage, print, sculpture, film and animation.
Tate Modern presents AxME, the UK’s first major solo exhibition of one of the most acclaimed contemporary artists to have emerged from North America since the mid-1990s, providing a unique opportunity to explore her twenty-year career. Ellen Gallagher brings together imagery from myth, nature, art and social history to create complex works in a wide variety of media, including painting, drawing, relief, collage, print, sculpture, film and animation.
Gallagher came to international prominence by subversively combining a minimalist aesthetic of intricate repetition with an iconography drawn in part from caricatured lips and eyes of black vaudeville minstrels. She continued to explore this tension between abstraction and figuration, transforming imagery from an eclectic range of literature, music, science fiction, advertising and natural history. Through a painstaking process of obscuring and layering these images, only traces of them are left visible through a veil of inky smudges, punctures, stains and abrasions to suggest a strange and unsettling imaginary world.
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 includes 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 is also 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, 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.