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Haus der Kunst in Munich presents the work of African-American artist Ellen Gallagher
Ellen Gallagher, La Chinoise, 2008© Ellen Gallagher. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
MUNICH.- With "Ellen Gallagher: AxME" Haus der Kunst presents the work of African-American artist Ellen Gallagher whose visual language is based on three cornerstones: the struggle over colonies with the formation of the modern world; the conceptual accomplishments of the arts in the 1960s and 1970s; and the notion of the archive as a dialectical linking of form and content. Previous presentations which concentrated on different concepts of emerging modernity included "Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life", as well es monographic shows with works by Kendell Geers and Ivan Kožariã, on display in 2013.

As the first major solo exhibition of the artist's work, the exhibition provides a unique opportunity to explore her twenty-year career, exploring the themes which have emerged and recurred from her seminal early canvases, through to recent bodies of work. The exhibition includes such key works as "DeLuxe", 2004-5, "Bird in Hand", 2006, a complex relief built up in layers of printed matter, plasticine, crystal, paint and gold leaf, and selected paintings from her black and yellow series, "Moon-Glo", 2010, and "Pomp-Bang", 2003.

The exhibition's playful title, "AxME", explicitly references to the cartoon "Don't Axe Me" (1958), a Looney Tunes classic, and to the colloquial alteration of "Ask me". Ellen Gallagher had used the same play on words for her solo exhibition at New Museum, New York ("Don't axe me", 06/19/13 - 09/15/13).

Ellen Gallagher (born 1965 in Providence, Rhode Island) continued to explore the tension between abstraction and figuration, transforming imagery from an eclectic range of literature, music, science fiction, advertising and natural history. Through a painstaking process of obscuring and layering these images, only traces of them are left visible through a veil of inky smudges, punctures, stains and abrasions to suggest a strange and unsettling imaginary world.

Under the auspices of the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, twenty-year-old Ellen Gallagher in 1986 spent a semester aboard an oceanographic research vessel examining the migratory patterns of pteropods – microscopic wing-footed snails.

She spent her nights catching the tiny creatures and part of her days drawing them. In a series of watercolours she recalls these studies of natural history ("Coral Cities", 2007). The people of 'Drexciya' represent the main inhabitants of this series. Drexciya is a mythic black Atlantis at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean founded by pregnant African women who leapt or were thrown from slave ships during the Middle Passage and gave birth to offspring capable of breathing underwater. Gallgher populates her canvases with women protected by Afro wigs made of vibrant sea creatures and marine flora; women with flowing coral hairs; and jellyfish-like figures with African faces. For Gallagher, the overboard, drowned slaves are carriers of ideas of regeneration and transhistorical nation. As an Exodus narrative, Gallagher's watercolours are not simply about escape but about the New Land, new beginnings, new identities formed in the context of emancipation.

Rather than archival paper Ellen Gallagher deliberately uses penmanship, knowing that "it will darken with time," as she once put it, "and that is interesting to me. It is also humiliating because it means that I don't really have control". Her use of penmanship paper, with its blue-line grid and linear structure, has been linked to the abstract artist Agnes Martin. Some of the works in the ongoing series "Watery Ecstatic" are white-on-white, as if to conjure up Melville's stunning verbal riff on 'The Whiteness of the Whale' in "Moby Dick". Melville's Captain Ahab lost his leg to a great white whale. In a recent interpretation Ahab, whose "whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze," is seen as a mulatto; the hatred Ahab bears towards the white whale's skin is given the meaning of a black man's insurrection against white men's dominance. Gallagher, a close reader of Melville's novel, in "DeLuxe" (2004-5) appointed Peg Leg as her own 'Captain Ahab'. Clayton Peg Leg Bates (1907-1998) was a celebrated entertainer and tap dancer who at the age of twelve lost his leg to an industrial cotton gin.

Ellen Gallagher took the New York art world by storm in the early 1990s with a series of beautifully balanced, deceptively minimalist paintings such as "Oh! Susanna" (1993), "Oogaboogah", and "Pinocchio Theory" (both 994). In a series of work she used advertisements for wigs and other commodities as well as feature articles from black-oriented magazines like Ebony, Our World, Black Stars, etc. One of her most intriguing works consists of a grid of twenty female wig models of various skin shades set against a vast white background. The wigs are meticulously cut into elaborate shapes and float on paper as if embossed. Squiggles of pink plasticine cover their eyes. Each model is captioned with her wig's brand name: E-Bangs, Fifi, Innocence, Afro-Swirly, and so on. Gallagher apropriated the title "Negroes Ask for German Colonies" from an article written in 1919 by the illustrious Harlem radical Hubert Harrison, who questioned black nationalists for calling on world leaders at the Paris Peace Conference held that year to allow Germany's African colonies self-rule. The paintings explore the idea of wigs as a kind of skin or vice versa, wigs as 'natural', skin as mutable, and wigs and skin as 'transformations'.

Beginning with "Preserve" (2001), the works show accumulations of eyes, lips and spores constructed with plasticine and paint and boxed in alongside the advertisements. The ads also became the basis for a series of five monumenal works comprising 396 portraits laid out on a grid, among them "Pomp-Bang" (2003), referred to by Ellen Gallagher as the 'yellow paintings'. The grid allows for non-linear, random reading, inviting the viewer to imagine intersecting narratives.

In among its many permutations a gradual shift can be traced from the all-over structure reminiscent of a grid to the operations of figure against ground, developing figuration out of abstraction. Gallagher's paintings and drawings manifest their simultaneous recourse to the strategies of drawing, writing, painting, collaging, and the sculptural process of carving and moulding, relief and intaglio printing, as well as xeroxing and other photobased, planographic means.

Ellen Gallagher now lives and works in Rotterdam and New York. Solo exhibitions of her work have included those held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and New Museum, New York. She was awarded the Joan Mitchell Fellowship in 1997 and an American Academy Award in Art in 2000 and her work is held in many major public collections, including MoMA, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Organised by Tate Modern in association with Sara Hildén Art Museum, Tampere and Haus der Kunst, Munich. The exhibition is curated by Juliet Bingham, Tate Modern, for the presentation in Munich in collaboration with Ulrich Wilmes.

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