Ellen Gallagher: An Ad for the Unspoken

Ellen Gallagher is an American-born, contemporary multimedia artist that speaks about our inner thoughts and the obscured details that push the less palatable down. Gallagher's works confront what we all eventually face: deep, nagging insecurity, broad and unknown danger around the corner, and disappointing interpersonal moments. A person's art work most certainly speaks about what they have decided to look at and, finally, let surface.

This past week, a humbling and insightful discussion led me to consider the process of repression. As an individual, what subject bothers me enough to work through it in visual form? Can I explain it? Does it have to wholly bother me or is there a space somewhere between curiosity and shame that elicits artistic response?

Gallagher's answer would be yes, and she would display her own self through her striking collaged imagery. The origins of Gallagher's works is highly accessible--they are what some might consider instructional "aids" to looking your best. Wig ads especially stand out to Gallagher, and she speaks about how she aims to "activate" characters in her painted, repeated figures. She also refers to our early imaginations of what it was to "be" a certain way, and how sometimes as adults, we (as artists and/or in our daily lives) can manage these recollections and create alternate narratives. Following are clips that exemplify her elegant and astute approach to visual culture.

I enjoy looking at a work of art that doesn't attempt to do it all at once--surely, the topic of sexuality, beauty, or race can overwhelm an artist with the best intentions. It can be rooted in the fear of being misread, too. Sometimes, when making art, a person can just hold back and work on something else that satiates their basic desire to speak but does not speak enough.

To relax, and to meditate upon the lines, the color, the balance--can be a calming exercise as good as a vibrant conversation. To view Gallagher's work is to acknowledge an artist's goal to examine an industry that was considered necessary and that required iconography of its own. Systems of iconography are created and recreated each day. What an important reminder for anyone who is unsure of where to begin in the seemingly endless maze that is the 21st century visual landscape. Perhaps it might help to just begin a conversation about these anxieties, and take it from there?

If you enjoy Gallagher, check out Kara Walker, whose bold silhouettes recreate the largely shameful history of the depiction of black women and men in American history. These two artists are just two of the many women who have sat down and considered the lack of sympathetic, realistic, and heroic imagery for women of color.

Recently, I began a list of stereotypes or hurtful images that I could recall about Mexican culture or Latinas. Immigration sprang up immediately, and was followed by the ever-present maid figure in pop culture. There was a lot to think about. I researched Latina artists working today, and could not find many at all--this is a space that also needs to be occupied and engaged by young or mature artists as well. Besides Ana Medieta, Isis Rodriguez, and Frida Kahlo, there is a similar lack of visibility for Latinas.

Again, acknowledgment and response sometimes feels like a tall order--and the fear of reinforcing negative stereotypes persists--but pushing these highly reflexive cultural details down would be a tragedy. Check out Walker's discussion about the occasional doubts in her own creative process:

If you are intrigued by Kara's work, read Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker by Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw.