"I'm actually not interested in that," says 34-year-old painter Ellen Gallagher.
"That" is the frequent assumption that Gallagher's minimalist canvases -- large abstractions dotted with small, racially charged images such as disembodied minstrel lips -- are, as she puts it, "some sort of attempted critique of stereotypes."
"To me," she says, "what is interesting about the work is that its readability depends on your entering my subjectivity." In other words, welcome to Ellen Gallagher's world.
Gallagher -- whose parents are recent immigrants, her mother from Ireland and her father from Africa -- burst on the art scene only two years out of art school, at the 1995 Whitney Biennial. Almost five years later, the 34-year-old artist shows no signs of slowing down. She will exhibit new work in January 2000 at London's Anthony D'Offay Gallery and in fall 2000 at Gagosian Gallery in SoHo, her second appearance at both spaces. A travelling exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston is also in the works for the year 2001. And in another kind of coup, Gallagher is among the glamorous and powerful women who have had their portraits painted by Francesco Clemente.
How can a girl get so far -- as of last week, Berlin's Galerie Max Hetzler was offering her 1999 painting, Nightlamp, for $44,000 -- and still be so misunderstood? After a conversation with the artist at a SoHo coffee shop, I wonder if part of the problem might be that it's easier to think of Gallagher's work as an impish manipulation of anxiety-provoking signs than to acknowledge exactly how much it offers us.
Since 1996, her painstakingly crafted works have included a series in which her images -- i.e. ink and pencil drawings of the aforementioned minstrel lips and eyes, among other things -- float on ruled notebook paper. In a more recent series of imposing 8 by 10 foot black monochromes, her signs, cut from paper or built up with paint, are visible as reliefs. The works are muscular, elegant and undeniably beautiful. But they are also more than that.
"One of the things the work does," she says, "is ask you to meditate on a kind of anxiety. I'm making this alternate universe from these given signs that are very constricted, and very known. And I think that's the problem. Because the imagery is so charged, people think they know what they're looking at."
Ideally, Gallagher seems to prefer that we not know what we're looking at. Knowing, for instance, can get in the way of an idea like "I don't locate Being in the body." But this idea is fundamental to her work. It's part of the reason, she says, that her work isn't figurative. It's also part of how she traces her artistic lineage to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, whom, she points out, found their most appreciative audiences overseas at a time when American listeners favored Motown. And when you say Motown, she says, "You mean narrative. You mean the Supremes. You mean bodies. We want the bodies to tell us the story."
This desire to have the bodies tell the story may be at the heart of why some viewers can find it hard to give her work its fullest reading. She explains, "Because of our history and our anxiety around blackness -- even black people's [anxiety] -- we're not willing to locate Being anywhere but in recognizable forms, like the body. We're not willing to locate it in a psychological space."
It is this absence of the body in Gallagher's work, however, that may reveal what is the ultimate subject of her abstractions: loss. This notion is made clear in a brief recollection Gallagher tells about her childhood. Growing up in the "internalized disappointment" of the post-Civil Rights era, she recalls, she was frequently told "that it was too late for the race, but not for individual cells."
"I know it's a very nihilistic thing to say," she continues, "but I feel it and I have felt it since I was a child: that there is no redemption for blacks as a family. But for individual cells, there will be possibilities."
Perhaps this provides some insight into the fact that although Gallagher's works have no bodies in them, their "disembodies," as you might call them, emit a power that is both palpable and haunting. The idea that the past can actually attain a physical power seems to resonate with the artist, at least. She explains that while many people see time as a linear progression, with the past forever in a place behind them, her view is different. "Memory is like a virus," she says, "And I think that when it does surface, it's here physically. It's not remembering the past. It's that the past is here right now."
If Gallagher is an heir to Coltrane, are we, as viewers of her work, akin to listeners of jazz? The metaphor works in the sense that it is -- calculatedly -- up to the individual to either admire Gallagher's work for its decorative beauty, or enter it more deeply. "I'm not going to pop your membrane with a titillating image," Gallagher says.
Perhaps, then, it's best to keep in mind two ideas when viewing Gallagher's work: she is a painter who can take you places. But if you want to travel with her, you have to book your own trip.