Thousands of googly eyes watch you drift through Ellen Gallagher’s angry, political world. They peer out of every canvas as an endless sea of lips smile menacingly at you. These are the exaggerated features of black racial stereotypes and vaudeville minstrels, which the African-American artist tears out of context and repeats obsessively.
Gallagher likes to toy with motifs, reusing and re-imagining the same images to create a visual language full of techno, sci-fi and Afrofuturist references. In the earliest works, from the mid-1990s, those puffed up lips and wild eyes become abstract patterns, formed into subtle compositions that recall African tribal art. Lined exercise paper also appears throughout the show – layered, glued and again abstracted to resemble tribal marks.
Gallagher cleverly re-appropriates and reverses society’s constraints and ideas, turning them into wild, free gestures. That’s what makes these works more than just pretty images. There’s a seething anger in the huge monochromatic black canvases and the black hair advertisements covered in Plasticine. The work acts as an aggressive refusal to be defined.
It would be easy to criticise all the repetition in Gallagher’s work, but her obsessive drive to question and contextualise herself – and black identity in general – through art is both beautiful and powerful. The visual language she builds, and its endless repetition, feels like the articulation of one person’s constant struggle with themselves.