Ellen Gallagher: AxME at the Tate Modern

-This exhibition is now closed-

The Tate Modern’s latest exhibition, AxME, is the first major UK retrospective of acclaimed American artist Ellen Gallagher, collecting works by the artist from the early 1990s to 2011.

Perhaps Gallagher’s most famous works are her series of mixed-media collages. In Double NaturalGallagher’s canvas consists of hundreds of beauty advertisements from American black lifestyle magazines of the 1940s-1970s, on which she superimposes modelling clay, ink and cut-outs to form her trademark characters with outlandish yellow wigs and masks. From one perspective, the individual alterations make the figures alien-like, perhaps a commentary on the othering of black people in mid-20th century America. Conversely, Gallagher’s repetition of the technique on such a grand scale creates its own exaggerated aesthetic ideal; an ironic reflection of the modern cult of conformative beauty.

Gallagher has spoken of creating a ‘language and cosmology of signs’ through the repetition of images and motifs in her work, and it is often in finding these repetitions that her works come to life for the viewer. In the Morphia series of ink and watercolour double-sided paintings, the images are ambiguous and ethereal, but among the clouds of colour and cut-outs the viewer can discern faces and wigs, otherworldly as in the Double Natural collages, but this time more organic, less exuberant and less directly connected to real-world political concerns. This sense of understatement and fluidity continues in Gallagher’s Watery Ecstatic series, inspired by underwater creatures and seascapes. The women and their hairpieces are still a leitmotif, but now as ghostly floating heads with wigs of coral and sea anemone.

My favourite piece in the show, Bird in Hand, builds on Gallagher’s established signs while expanding on her organic and fluid aesthetic. Nothing in the picture is as it seems; the hair is not hair but a hive of repeated motifs, the legs are not legs but vines and plant roots, the figure in the picture is essentially grotesque, but his stance is eerily calm and disarming. There is a strong sense of narrative in this image, if only the viewer could decrypt Gallagher’s enigmatic vocabulary. For me, Bird in Hand epitomises Gallagher’s success in creating an elusive and unique visual language.

The exhibition is open until 1 September.