Ellen Gallagher’s “A law… a blueprint… a scale”: An Immersive Dialogue With The Ocean

Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Highway Gothic, 2019, 16mm film still. © and image courtesy of the artists.
Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Highway Gothic, 2019, 16mm film still. © and image courtesy of the artists.
Ellen Gallagher, DeLuxe, 2004–05, grids of photogravure, etching, aquatint and drypoints with lithography, screenprint, embossing, tattoo-machine engraving; some with additions of plasticine, watercolour, pomade, and toy eyeballs, 60 parts, 33 x 26.5 cm (each), 215.26 cm x 447.04 cm (overall); various collections. Photo and © by Alex Delfanne, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.
Ellen Gallagher, Dew Breaker, 2015, pigment, ink, oil, graphite and paper on canvas, 188.2 x 202.9 cm. © Ernst Moritz, Den Haag, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.
Ellen Gallagher, Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop, 2002, rubber, paper and enamel on linen, 244 x 305 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Osedax, 2010, hand-painted slide. © the artists. Image courtesy the artists and Hauser & Wirth.
Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Osedax, 2010, film installation with inscribed wood panels, bench, 16mm projection, two slide projections, 244 x 450 x 500 cm. Installation view in “Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: A law… a blueprint… a scale…” at Centro Botín, Santander, 14 April – 11 September 2022. © the artists. Image courtesy of the artists and Centro Botín.
Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Highway Gothic, 2019, 16mm film installation with 70mm film cyanotype banners, lightboxes, and cyanotype textile banners; overall dimensions variable. Installation view in “Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: A law… a blueprint… a scale…” at Centro Botín, Santander, 14 April – 11 September 2022. © the artists. Image courtesy of the artists and Centro Botín.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

American artist Ellen Gallagher’s ongoing major exhibition “A law… a blueprint… a scale” explores issues of race, identity, and transformation through an immersive itinerary at Centro Botín in Santander, with works spanning two decades of the artist’s career, from the glistening Black Paintings series that began in 1998 to her latest film installations created in collaboration with Dutch artist Edgar Cleijne.

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of various 

 

American artist Ellen Gallagher’s “A law… a blueprint… a scale” is a strangely diverse yet epic exhibition. She addresses issues from the Black American experience to ecology and death in the depths of the ocean, and in addition to her compositions in various media, she offers walk-in installations created in collaboration with Dutch artist Edgar Cleijne which are alive with projections, film, and music, With works spanning from 1998 to 2019, the exhibition could be seen as a retrospective. However, the venue brings another dimension to the show. The Renzo Piano-designed Centro Botín literally floats above the edge of Atlantic waters in the bay of Santander, Spain, and that brings Gallagher’s work into a dialogue with the ocean.

 

Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Highway Gothic, 2019, 16mm film still. © and image courtesy of the artists.
Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Highway Gothic, 2019, 16mm film still. © and image courtesy of the artists.

 

Our first port of call is Mississippi, in Highway Gothic (2019), the first of three installations. A large, darkened room is filled with hanging screens depicting specimen prints in cyanotype images which have the precision of blueprints yet appear semi-abstract. Two films are projected, following the journey of an African-American man through lush backwaters to New Orleans, with the Interstate 10 highway cutting through the landscape. We are in his world of concrete and nature, the latter sampled and magnified in scale, including a lightbox on the floor depicting a bug and the question “Is there a Devil in your ditch?” The experience is immersive and meditative, intensified by the driving rock music of Circle (2017) by Finnish band Sick Child.

 

Ellen Gallagher, DeLuxe, 2004–05, grids of photogravure, etching, aquatint and drypoints with lithography, screenprint, embossing, tattoo-machine engraving; some with additions of plasticine, watercolour, pomade, and toy eyeballs, 60 parts, 33 x 26.5 cm (each), 215.26 cm x 447.04 cm (overall); various collections. Photo and © by Alex Delfanne, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.
Ellen Gallagher, Dew Breaker, 2015, pigment, ink, oil, graphite and paper on canvas, 188.2 x 202.9 cm. © Ernst Moritz, Den Haag, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Gallagher delivers extraordinary ideas about race and ocean, sometimes in combination, in the various drawings, painting, and montages in the central gallery. DeLuxe (2004–05) is a 12×15 grid of framed works in which magazine advertisements for African-American audiences from the 1930s to 70s have been manipulated. Whited-out yes and yellow bizarre forms superimposed on heads create vampiric and alien-like characters, twisting the commercial exploitation of race-targeted products for hair-straightening or skin-lightening.

Serenity runs through the other works. Dew Breaker (2015) is an example in which abstract shapes suggest life and fluidity in gentle pastel shades. In the Morphia series (2008–12), Gallagher has intricately drawn and cut the shapes of tentacled marine animals features in thick-layered watercolour paper, so that the images have a third dimension, sandwiched between glass to reveal both sides. In the haunting ink-and-watercolour, white paper series of Watery Ecstatic (2001–), we see faces of a mythological underwater race called Drexciya—descended from Africans drowned at sea during slave trade transportation—with their hair floating like rooted aquatic lifeforms.

 

Ellen Gallagher, Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop, 2002, rubber, paper and enamel on linen, 244 x 305 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

The third gallery hosts large, striking square canvases from Gallagher’s Black Paintings series that began in 1998. They are exactly that—as dark as crude oil, with no other colour. This is more than a nod to Malevich’s iconic Black Square (1915), because Gallagher embeds images in the black by layering enamel, paper, and rubber to make the surfaces reflect and glisten. Some take us into the inky blackness of the deep ocean, but in Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop (2002) (the title borrowed from a 1978 song by funk band Parliament) we see a face framed in a circle, possibly referencing the iconic image of 1960s political activist Angela Davis. 

In the room’s centre is a square box installation, Better Dimension (2010), another collaboration with Cleijne. Its silkscreen exterior walls are printed material like astronomer Percival Lowell’s maps of the Martian canals which he imagined and texts by legendary musician Sun Ra (who, although African-American, always maintained that he came from Saturn). Inside, abstract hand-painted images are projected on the walls, President JF Kennedy’s head spins on a central screen, and jazzy, doodly music from Sun Ra Arkestra’s 1982 album Nuclear War permeates the space. This is a place to hang out and it feels like almost like a chill-out room at a party. But what does it mean? Just as Kennedy boosted the American space program to go beyond Earth in the 1960s, the rockets under his command were also delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons, but Sun Ra imagined outer space as a place for liberation, and from the 1970s his experimental music served as the first soundtrack for the emerging, idealistic, science-fiction visions of Afro-futurism.

 

Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Osedax, 2010, hand-painted slide. © the artists. Image courtesy the artists and Hauser & Wirth.
Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Osedax, 2010, film installation with inscribed wood panels, bench, 16mm projection, two slide projections, 244 x 450 x 500 cm. Installation view in “Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: A law… a blueprint… a scale…” at Centro Botín, Santander, 14 April – 11 September 2022. © the artists. Image courtesy of the artists and Centro Botín.

 

There is one more item around Better Dimension. A fossil whale skull, about 50cm long, which was brought up from the sea bed near Santander Bay in 1982, is on show with an explanatory text next to it by English writer Philip Hoare. It’s there because of Gallagher’s interest in whale-fall, the phenomenon of dead whales falling to the sea bed, where they are consumed by scavengers. In one of her black paintings we see a whale’s tail on its way down, and the title of the third and final installation by Cleijne and Gallagher is Osedax (2010), named after the class of bone-eating sea worms which ultimately consume the whale. This installation, the smallest of the three, is in a black box nestled under the Centro Botín building. Inside, a film shows footage shot at sea, such as an oil rig in African waters, and more hand-painted slide projections, coupled with music by 70s soul bands The Floaters and The Whatnauts.  

Emerging from the show, one is just a few metres away from the water where ships pass between Santander’s port and the Atlantic. It is a good place to stop and consider what you have seen. Cleijne’s background in photography and film-making, which includes a 2010 book about Lagos co-authored with architect Rem Koolhaas, is clearly key to the multi-media experience offered by the collaborative installations. Inside them, the sharp choice of music does more than manipulate atmosphere, it relates directly to the cultural context of the works. We also see in Gallagher’s practise a mastery of technique to exploit her materials for extraordinary visual effect. Whether exploring race, transformation, biology, or the ocean, she generates surprising, unique visions in which texture and image are symbiotic. Not least, bridging her commentary on race and identity with the oceans and eco-awareness is a powerful political thread exposing the legacy of colonialism in Western civilisation. It runs deep, and has scale, like the sea.

 

Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Highway Gothic, 2019, 16mm film installation with 70mm film cyanotype banners, lightboxes, and cyanotype textile banners; overall dimensions variable. Installation view in “Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: A law… a blueprint… a scale…” at Centro Botín, Santander, 14 April – 11 September 2022. © the artists. Image courtesy of the artists and Centro Botín.

 

Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: A law… a blueprint… a scale…
Centro Botín, Santander
14 April – 11 September 2022

 

 

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