Ellen Gallagher is an American artist of both non-representational and figurative works of painting, paper, drawing, collage, film, and video. Gallagher’s abstraction and image-based narratives derive from found materials, which come from magazines, posters, journals, and advertising. These function as the base for her paintings and drawings with only traces of the original remaining. Themes relating to race are evident in her work, sometimes through pictographs, repetitions, and codes. At times there are references to Black minstrel shows scattered throughout her works.
She is a painter of history, most especially the history of the Middle Passage. Her large-scale paintings in her first solo show in Los Angeles depicted the fragmented faces and bodies of slaves thrown overboard to drown in the Atlantic Ocean.
The biracial artist, who divides her time between New York and Rotterdam, grew up in the port town of Providence, Rhode Island. When she was 20, she sailed on an oceanography expedition from New England to the former French colony of Martinique. She felt the “whimsical cruelty” of the imperial powers that carved up the globe, imposing cultural distance between white Anglophone New England and Black, Francophone Martinique.
Gallagher has always been intrigued by stories of the sea, such as the sinking of the whale ship Essex by a giant whale in 1820 as well as the tale it inspired, “Moby-Dick.” She spent a summer on a fishing boat in Alaska and since 2001 has worked on a series “Watery Ecstatic,” begun after her move to Rotterdam. She describes this series as her “version of scrimshaw,” the carvings on whalebone connected with the seafaring cultures of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Gallagher’s exhibition “Accidental Records” references the Atlantic Ocean not simply as a conveyance of the slave trade but as an actual graveyard for the slaves who were thrown overboard as was the case in 1781 when 133 slaves were drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. However Gallagher also considers the ocean a source of life as in the legend of Drexciiya, which told of an underwater colony inhabited by the children of the pregnant slave women, who were thrown overboard.
Her 2016 quartet of paintings “Negroes Battling in a Cave” mines abstraction’s relationship with blackness. The congealing of medium, which is black enamel placed over pieces of paper cut into amoeba shapes, echoes the accretion of histories.
Gallagher participated in the Venice Biennale in 2003 and 2005. Her work resides in the permanent collections of Museum of Modern Art in New York, Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Whitney Museum of American Art, Baltimore Museum of Art, and Institute of Contemporary Art Boston.