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From the Hugh Lane Gallery Exhibition Archive 2007 #flashbackfriday returns to: Ellen Gallagher, Coral Cities
Ellen Gallagher’s work explores identity and transformation, referencing historical and contemporary subjects that include modernist abstraction, marine biology and popular Black culture. The Douglas Hyde Gallery Director Georgina Jackson, was working with us then as exhibitions curator and she organised this exhibition in collaboration with Tate Liverpool. It was the first solo exhibition with Ellen Gallagher in Ireland. Gallagher’s mother came from Ireland and her father from the archipelago of Cape Verde. She was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1965.
Gallagher’s work incorporates historically specific cultural references, merged with her own personal biography. “What is crucial to my making of a language and a cosmology of signs is the type of repetition that is central to a lot of the music I am listening to right now. . . . I start off with a limited class of signs and, like stacking in music, I chop and revisit the changes to build structure.” —Ellen Gallagher
‘Coral Cities’, included the ongoing series collectively entitled ‘Watery Ecstatic’ (2001-) where Gallagher invents complex biomorphic forms that she relates to the mythical Drexciya, an undersea kingdom populated by the women and children who were the tragic casualties of the transatlantic slave trade. In this series of work their embryonic status is transformed into elaborate mythical figures, half human, half fish, and highly developed underwater species. Carving directly onto paper, elaborating with precise detail, and collaging material taken from from post war Black American magazines such as ‘Ebony’ and ‘Sepia’, with plasticine bodily forms and gold leaf, Gallagher remixes representations of identity.
A seminal work in the exhibition included the epic painting ‘Bird in Hand’ (2006), which represents the black slaves from Cape Verde who developed a knowledge of seafaring to become sailors and sea captains. Seen here as part tree, part root, whose cascading hair intertwines into a multitude of heads, text, seaweed and fish bone forms, underpinning her background as an illustrator in Marine biology. The figure has a peg leg, part referencing characters such as the African-American entertainer ‘Peg Leg Bates’, and the numerous unnamed black models from magazine advertisements, while the title invokes the proverb ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ as the sailor grips a dark emerald green parrot in his hand.
“I’ve collected archival material from black photo journals from 1939 to 1972 ... Initially I was attracted to the magazines because the wig advertisements had a grid-like structure that interested me. But as I began looking through them, the wig ads themselves had such a language to them – so worldly – that referred to other countries ... this sort of lost past ... And then I realized that I also had a kind of longing for the other stories, the narratives, wanting to bring them back into the paintings and wanting the paintings to function through the characters of the ads – to function as a kind of chart or a map of this lost world.” 1
Ellen Gallagher lives and works in New York and Rotterdam, Netherlands. Her work first gained international attention at the Whitney Biennial in 1995. She has exhibited widely with recent solo exhibitions in Centro Botín Centre, Santander, Spain (2020), Gagosian, Paris (2019), Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago (2018) and The Power Plant, Canada (2018), with work included in public collections worldwide. Gallagher was selected for the Italian Pavilion for the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.
The exhibition was organised in collaboration with Tate Liverpool and was financially supported by the Mondriaan Foundation. A colour publication, by Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and Tate Liverpool, was published in 2007.
1 (Quoted in ‘Ellen Gallagher Interview: Characters, Myths and Stories’.) 1.4.2020 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gallagher-bird-in-hand-t12450