Link to What's New This Week Ellen Gallagher in her SoHo studio with her new work, "DeLuxe."

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Ellen Gallagher

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Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Ellen Gallagher in her SoHo studio with her new work, "DeLuxe."

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: January 24, 2005
Latest Update: January 24 2005

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January 23, 2005
60 Ways of Looking at a Black Woman By EDWARD LEWINE 'DELUXE' Whitney Museum of American Art 945 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street. Thursday through May 15. LLEN GALLAGHER dabbed a swirl of gray watercolor onto the delicate pencil drawing she had just sketched of a furry hamster. Late December sunlight radiated through the windows at Two Palms Press, the SoHo printmaking studio where she has spent the last 18 months preparing a work comprising 60 collage prints. Titled "DeLuxe," it is the subject of its own show at the Whitney Museum, opening this week. Weeks remained until "DeLuxe" had to be delivered, and the mood in the lower Broadway loft was intense. One artist glued toy eyeballs onto a collage; another placed wig shapes made of plasticine clay onto a different collage; while a master printer was in a darkroom reproducing pages from black magazines like Ebony, Sepia and Our World that dated from the 1930's through the 1970's. Reserved in manner, with a sonorous voice and a girlish laugh, Ms. Gallagher seemed relaxed despite her looming deadline and pleased to see the first copy of "DeLuxe" nearing completion. (The set of 60 collages will be printed 20 times in a numbered edition.) "I love this moment," she said. "It is sort of delicious. You have come through the agonizing part, when you are trying to articulate what you want to say but can't. You have made your ideas visible." Until recently, Ms. Gallagher, 39, had charted a quiet if successful course as an artist, mostly as a painter whose work plays with ideas about race. In the past year, however, her career has gained momentum. Major institutions including the Museum of Modern Art have bought paintings; and the technical virtuosity of "DeLuxe," the subject of her first solo show in a New York museum, is generating buzz. "This work is so complex that it will take a few years for a lot of printmaking to catch up with it," said David Kiehl, the print curator at the Whitney, which reserved the first copy of the work. "Ellen has something to say, and how she is saying it is stretching the medium." The Modern's director, Glenn D. Lowry, put dibs on the second copy. (According to Two Palms Press, 15 copies have been sold at $175,000 apiece.) "We were impressed by the thoughtfulness of the work and the way it pushed the boundaries of printmaking," Mr. Lowry said. "This is an extremely talented artist who is beginning to hit full stride." From the start of her career, Ms. Gallagher has made paintings with lines or grids that she decorates and sometimes overruns with repeating images that refer to racial stereotypes: black-faced comedians, afros, lips, nurses and wigs. The grids recall the work of Minimalist painters like Agnes Martin, and the copied images recall Pop Art, particularly Andy Warhol. Far from being preachy or regretful, her work is a meditation on 20th-century black culture, an attempt to remember the good and the bad by resuscitating images. "I'm interested in reactivating something that was static," Ms. Gallagher said. "I find that so much more interesting than critique." Mr. Kiehl says "DeLuxe" is the most realized expression of the ideas that Ms. Gallagher has grappled with for years; equally striking is the array of techniques she harnessed to create it. She began her 60 collage prints by selecting pages from old magazines she has collected. She backed the pages with paper, then cut them up, removing eyes, mouths, faces and blocks of text. Sometimes she pasted back what she had removed, and sometimes she left the spaces blank; occasionally she added new words and images. The resulting collages were then made into photogravures, a Victorian-era method of photographic printing that renders the collages flat and even, as though the alterations were part of the originals. Then Ms. Gallagher went to work on the photogravures. She cut and pasted. She colored eyes and mouths. She adorned figures with wig and masks sculptured from plasticine in yellow, black, blue, gray and translucent gel. She added elements like rhinestones and gold leaf. She cut elaborate vegetal shapes. She etched copper plates that were used to print drawings of hamsters, lips, eyes, stockings and sea creatures onto some of the sheets. The collages are hung in evenly spaced rows of 12. Seen from a distance, they form a massive grid reminiscent of the ones in her paintings. But while the paintings are sparing in decoration, "DeLuxe" bursts forth with line, color and sculpture. Some collages are multihued; some are in black and white. Some are dominated by a single figure; others are covered by row upon row of small heads. Some are flat. Others are built with ornamentation. In one collage the image is stamped into a sheet of metallic paper. Another is decorated with elaborate tracery in brown felt. As the viewer moves toward "DeLuxe," the impression of the grid fades and the eye reads the individual collages. Most are based on advertisements aimed at black women for hair-straightening products, wigs, nursing school courses and stockings, but all have been tweaked in ways that range from adoring to mocking to hostile. Images repeat themselves from collage to collage. Many curators praise Ms. Gallagher for her ability to discuss race without being pompous and for the way she balances ideas with technique. "She's masterful at creating tension between form and content," said Elizabeth Smith, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which bought a Gallagher painting last year. Not all agree. Ms. Gallagher has been faulted for what some critics see as a certain facile quality. Writing in The New York Times about Ms. Gallagher's winter 2004 show at the Gagosian Gallery, Ken Johnson called her paintings and collages "visually catchy" but "too obvious." Ms. Gallagher said she draws such criticism because her material makes people uncomfortable. "Somehow in America black artists aren't allowed to use banal images of blackness," she said. "On the other hand, the idea of something black and inscrutable is also very disturbing." To assemble her collages and reproduce them as multiples, Ms. Gallagher collaborated with the printers at Two Palms Press, who helped her use photogravure, computers, lasers, direct etching, photo etching and screen-printing, often on a single collage. She also experimented with drawing on etching plates with a tattooing needle. "We tied up the shop for two years, and it cost around $300,000," said David Lasry, the co-founder and co-owner of Two Palms, which works with a select group of artists including Kiki Smith and Chuck Close. "This is the most ambitious undertaking we have been a part of." The result of the collaboration is an artwork grounded in venerable techniques like drawing, sculpture, etching and collage yet refined by photography, computers and lasers. In an era when artists seem overwhelmed by the power of the camera and microchip to reproduce and change images, Ms. Gallagher has returned to an old mode of reproduction - the print - and brought it to life. "Ellen has found a way to use technology without losing craftsmanship," said Romi Crawford, the director of the visiting artists program at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. "That balance is really hard for artists to find right now." Ms. Gallagher was raised in Providence, R.I. Her mother was white, her father black. Her father, a professional boxer, was rarely around, she said, and died in 1998. Growing up, Ms. Gallagher said, she learned to navigate the worlds of her mother's blue-collar, Irish family, her father's family of recent immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands and the homes of her friends, many of them African Americans. After a few years of college, a summer on an Alaskan fishing boat and a semester in one of those study programs conducted on ships, Ms. Gallagher decided she wanted to be an artist. She studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and soon began attracting attention. She was included in the 1995 Whitney Biennial exhibition. A 1996 solo show at the Mary Boone Gallery in SoHo followed, and she was on her way. Ms. Gallagher divides her time between a West Village apartment and a communal studio in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. People who know her say the move to Europe was a conscious attempt to escape the New York scene and expose herself to other influences. A friend, the writer and performer Anna Deavere Smith, said that Ms. Gallagher had "a great stamina for work." "But she isn't just ambitious," she added. "She's after something as an artist and is willing to take time to find it." At the Two Palms Press loft late that morning, the elevator opened and in walked Bob Monk, a representative of the dealer Larry Gagosian, who represents Ms. Gallagher. Neat and compact, with long graying hair and a beard, and his 21-year-old son, Andrew, in tow, he kissed Ms. Gallagher and drew her over to a working copy of "DeLuxe," which was tacked on a wall. "Are you worried that people at the Whitney won't be able to see the details?" Mr. Monk asked after a few minutes of praise. Ms. Gallagher replied: "I worried about that. But it will be hung lower down in the museum. I think people will see it." After the entire shop sat down and shared lunch at a long table, Mr. Monk departed and Ms. Gallagher, anxious to wrap up "DeLuxe" and begin her next project, a show of drawings at her London dealer's gallery, got back to work. "All I've done today is draw one ear of a hamster," she said. "It's shameful." Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company



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