Gallagher's work is contradictory in the sense that her pieces are surreal yet realistic, ambiguous yet painstakingly structured and odd but strangely familiar. Her latest exhibition focuses on the collapse of time by the use of fictional and non-fictional characters. By manipulating magazine articles, texts, journals and images, which are often stained and perforated, she creates an evocative visual journey.
An Experiment of Unusual Opportunity
Gallagher is an African American and critics have viewed her work as dealing with race, transformation and missing histories. Recurring characters chart this concern. One tiny ink sketch of two men at a bar is later re-imagined in a larger piece in which their bodies are mysteriously silhouetted against a blinding gold computer chip.
Gallagher's obliteration of detail is a bold statement against the banishment of individuality. The use of different materials could leave the pieces feeling fragmented. But her geometric shapes and meticulous patterns - as seen in her graphic seascape pieces - lend an order to the chaos. Stained and smudged materials are perfectly cut out, creating a tension between the organic and the constructed, or individuality and conformity.
The ink on paper pieces in the middle of the room reinforce these themes - thin egg tempera paper with cuts and ink sketches of brains, feathers, lungs and clouds. Layering also gives pieces an intuitive, imperfect feel.
The instinctive marks and patterns map out an account of past identities and representations, which are left ambiguous and timeless. As your eyes float over the array of details, you never feel like you totally understand each piece. But perhaps this is the point; identity and representation are always going to contain contradictions and misunderstandings. It is their unknowable essence that gives Gallagher's work their potency and relevance in an uncertain time.
Ellen Gallagher: An Experiment of Unusual Opportunity is on display at the South London Gallery until May 5th. All details can be found here.