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New Museum brings together twenty years of works and a new series of paintings by Ellen Gallagher
Installation view. Ellen Gallagher: Don’t Axe Me at the New Museum. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

NEW YORK, NY.- This summer, the New Museum presents the first major New York museum exhibition of the work of Ellen Gallagher. Spanning the past twenty years and including thirty works, “Don’t Axe Me” provides one of the first opportunities to thoroughly examine the complex formal and thematic concerns of one of the most significant artists to emerge since the mid-1990s. The title of the exhibition, “Don’t Axe Me,” evokes her radical approach to image, text, and surface—drawing equally from modernism, mass culture, and social history. This focused survey at the New Museum runs concurrently with Gallagher’s exhibition at the Tate Modern, London (May 2013).

The exhibition traces the transformations, excavations, and accumulations of Gallagher’s practice through a number of her iconic paintings, drawings, prints, and film installations. A major new series of paintings are presented alongside some of the artist’s most celebrated works. These include several of her early paintings, comprised of intricate drawings rendered on penmanship paper and collaged onto the surface of the canvas, as well as a selection of works on paper using watercolor, ink, cut paper, and other diverse materials. “Don’t Axe Me” also features the first New York presentation of Osedax (2011; made in collaboration with Edgar Cleijne)—an immersive environment consisting of 16mm film and painted slide projections inspired by a species of undersea worm that burrows into the bones of whale carcasses.

The exhibition highlights the humor, historical depth, psychological complexity, and formal inventiveness inherent in Gallagher’s rich oeuvre. “Don’t Axe Me” is on view in the New Museum’s third- and fourth-floor galleries from June 19–September 15, 2013, and is organized by Gary Carrion-Murayari, Curator.

Over the past two decades, Gallagher has created a subtle and diverse body of work exploring notions of materiality, history, and language. In her early paintings, Gallagher dispersed fields of repeated bulging lips and eyes—borrowed from the imagery of minstrel performances—on grid-like backgrounds of penmanship paper. In constructing these works, which hover between drawing and painting, Gallagher inserted charged images into the language of modernist painting. She would continue to incorporate historical material in subsequent works—most famously using mid-century advertisements for African-American beauty products from Ebony magazine and other publications from the same period, abstracting the portraits of female wig models and their captions with stylized layers of yellow Plasticine, dabs of oil paint, pencil marks, and incisions directly into the paper. Gallagher’s formal processes exemplify the visual and linguistic transformation and historical reimagining that has defined her work ever since. These fragments continue to appear excised from their original context and subsumed into the rich layers of her paintings and drawings.

Gallagher’s visual cosmology has also continued to expand since the 1990s, including images and references to figures as diverse as writers Gertrude Stein and Herman Melville, the musician Sun Ra, Freud, and historical figures such as Eunice Rivers and Peg Leg Bates. She consistently creates surprising, dynamic relationships between characters, writing new narratives about the past and present in a manner that evokes both poetry and science fiction. Her work also reflects a sustained engagement with the natural world and, in particular, with the sea, both as a historical and cultural protagonist and as an inspiration for the kinds of formal explorations of complex figure-ground relationships she creates across the surfaces of her work. Through her unique technical approach, Gallagher produces fluid spaces where science, art, and popular culture continually meet, interact, and transform in novel ways.

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June 23, 2013

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