Jun 9, 2013

Deluxe Play with Hair

An Ellen Gallagher (b.1965) show recently opened at Tate Modern. Running through September 1, 2013, Ellen Gallagher: AxME is the artist's first major solo exhibition in the UK. Of Irish and African American heritage, Gallagher appropriates source materials from science fiction, the vaudeville tradition of black minstrels, and advertising targeted to African Americans.

Of note is DeLuxe (2004-5), sixty individually-framed prints that hang in a rectangular grid arrangement. Each print is a re-working of a magazine advertisement from a publication such as Ebony, Our World or Sepia dating from the 1920s to the 1970s. The ads, aimed at African American consumers, "promote a range of beauty products for women and men, especially goods relating to hair including wigs and pomades."1   Gallagher has appropriated these images and modified them using a variety of techniques -- in particular, collage. To the prints she has added materials such as glitter, gold leaf, coconut oil, toy eyeballs, and molded plasticine in the shape of wigs.

Gallagher's interventions to these beauty ads parody the idea of "improvement" through a process of erasure and alteration and "underscore in particular the role of hair as a signifier of difference."2 While her work is often characterized as political art, as it investigates of social and racial identities, it also has a playful approach that “confronts issues of race...with clever, even antic, satire."3

This idea of playfulness resonates both in format (she "plays" with the traditional print) and in content (poking fun at hairstyles and appearance). In Gallagher's hands, looks that are intended to help us "conform" to an ideal become fantastical masks, jazzy helmets, or fanciful hats from outer space. "When viewed together, these prints offer a history lesson about modernism, fashion, mass media, and race in mid-century America."4

‘The wig ladies are fugitives, conscripts from another time and place, liberated from the “race” magazines of the past. But again, I have transformed them, here on the pages that once held them captive.’ 5

One of Gallagher's tropes is the grid. Not only is Deluxe installed in a grid formation, the wig ads themselves are laid out in rows and columns of wigged heads. "Gallagher was drawn to the wig advertisements because of their grid-like structure...[having been] influenced by the sublime aesthetics of Agnes Martin’s paintings, as well the subtle shifts and repetitions of Gertrude Stein’s writing."6

These grids reminded me of another work by another artist: Tom Sach's James Brown’s Hair Products (2009). I saw this work when it was on view at the Sperone-Westwater Gallery in 2011. While the Sachs work has little in common with Deluxe in regards to motivation and interpretation, the works do align themselves formally. Confronted by a grid of hair products, each a specimen of physical conceit and tool of identity construction, we might ask ourselves to look at how we fetishize our hair rituals.

1-2. Tate Museum object catalogue record
3. "In Black and White" by Mark Stevens. Feb 21, 2005 issue of New York magazine
4. Walker Art Museum object catalogue record.

5. Exhibition description
6. PBS series Art21 from the episode "play"

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