Ellen Gallagher’s multimedia practice explores the history of beauty and images in our collective American history. In her hands, modernism itself, both as an ideological stance and as a formal imperative, is shown to have existed through loss and suppression of the narratives of race and gender.
Her inquiry takes a polyvalent approach, showing how various forms of media, such as literature, music, and fine art as well as popular magazines and films, used stereotypes to perpetuate social customs derogatory to African Americans. Her work recovers these histories, setting them into aerated aesthetic motion. At the start of her career, Gallagher used the rules and effects of high modernist abstraction to create historically critical works of information and trauma. The formal effect is reminiscent of artists such as Agnes Martin or Ad Reinhardt, but instead of shapes and pencil lines that distort and shift, Gallagher’s forms are bow ties, mouths, and eyes. These shapes are taken from the iconography of minstrelsy, post–Civil War shows featuring white men in blackface that often had decidedly racist undercurrents. These changing, outmoded symbols of art and racism are called upon again to speak, not as harbingers of hate and repression but with messages full of historical weight and recovery.