Ellen Gallagher (American, b. 1965) is known for employing potent visual symbols to reveal sly musings on the history of racial identity in America. She gained attention in the 1990s with paintings that initially appeared abstract and minimal, with a subtle palette and geometry. The delicate grids were formed by sheets of penmanship exercises adhered to the canvas, onto which the artist rendered emblems of racism such as the popping eyes, tongues, and lips of minstrel caricatures. In recent years, Gallagher has continued to experiment in paintings and works on paper, incorporating collaged elements from popular magazines published for a black audience such as Ebony, Black Digest, and Our World—most of them dating from the years before the Civil Rights era. She is especially drawn to advertisements that promise physical transformation—skin lighteners, hair straighteners, and wigs—and is fascinated with the language of the ads, which becomes a narrative element in her work.
DeLuxe, a recent suite of 60 prints, is a tour-de-force hybrid of printmaking, drawing, collage, and painting. Working again with vintage magazines as source material, Gallagher here plays with the idea of erasure, altering models’ features with a variety of materials that transform their idealized images into bizarre, alienlike apparitions. Each of the advertisements has been meticulously printed, using traditional techniques such as aquatint, drypoint, and silkscreen as well as more unconventional methods that include laser-cutting, mold-making, and tattoo-machine engraving. The artist, as she says, “reactivates” these surfaces by adhering plasticine, coconut oil, paint, toy eyeballs, crystals, glitter, and other items. When viewed together, these prints offer a history lesson about modernism, fashion, mass media, and race in mid-century America.