Must Sea: Ellen Gallagher Brings The Sea Into Her Art

Two artists- one a mid-career superstar; the other a rising talent grapple with nature's primal forces

Photograph by Christopher Thomond/ The Guardian

Gallagher in her rotterdam studio with one of her new abstract oils; Photo by Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

One of the most acclaimed artists of her generation, Rhode Island–born, Rotterdam-based ellen Gallagher shot to fame with works that mine African-American pop culture, Moby Dick, ’60s minimalist painting, Black Power, Detroit techno and her own heritage (her mother is Irish; her father’s family comes from Cape Verde). As this summer’s art heroine, she’s the subject of two major exhibitions: AxME at London’s Tate Modern (on until Sept. 1) and Don’t Axe Me at Manhattan’s New Museum (June 19 to Sept. 15). Race is a dominant theme in both shows, and it’s fascinating to watch the overt identity politics that figure into her iconic work becoming subsumed and complicated in less-often-seen nature-focused explorations.

Early in her career, Gallagher appropriated vintage advertisements for African-American products—wigs, hair-straightening aids and skin-lightening creams that promise you will be “made for kisses”—which she deftly transformed with a scalpel, excising lips and eyes to haunting effect.

Wiglette, a single frame taken from Deluxe (2004), a series of 60 prints shown as one work, incorporating images culled from vintage advertisements and adding materials such asplasticine, enamel and gold leaf; Courtesy of Ellen Gallagher

More recent paintings and videos revolve around Gallagher’s obsession with the sea. Her pre-fame CV includes stints on commercial fishing ships off Maine and Alaska, and she’s remarked of her Atlantic-side rearing: “The water becomes a character in your life.” One film (created with Edgar Cleijne, her Dutch partner) is about the Osedax, a frilly, red, bone-eating deep-sea tubeworm that feeds on whale carcasses. Drawings from her ongoing series, Watery Ecstatic, feature enchanting marine creatures. Only up close do we see the collaged African faces—an homage to slaves who were thrown overboard on their passage to the New World.

Tough in subject matter but dazzling to behold, Gallagher’s art is, she says, “butch feminine.” Seen together, it becomes a 21st-century scrimshaw of her experience as a biracial woman that will speak long after we’ve been consigned to the Osedax.

Courtesy of Jen Stark and Cooper Cole Gallery

Courtesy of Jen Stark and Cooper Cole Gallery

New Geography: Take a trip through the galaxy

Don’t be alarmed. You’re not navigating a Super Mario Bros. warp pipe, and no one spiked your drink. This is Vortextural, part of L.A.–based sculpture artist Jen Stark’s show at Toronto’s Cooper Cole gallery this July. Inspired by the patterns and shapes of galactic phenomena such as the Milky Way and hurricane vortices, Stark hand-cut hundreds of paper pieces, mounting them in many layers to create a psychedelic, mystifying wormhole you’ll all but fall into. July 4–27. —Elyse Goody