Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, installation view, Highway Gothic (detail), 2017, Bonniers Konsthall, 16mm film installation with 70mm film and canvas cyanotype banners, Courtesy Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher & Hauser & Wirth & Gagosian Gallery
The exhibition Liquid Intelligence at the Wiels Contemporay Art Centre in Brussels presents several works by Ellen Gallagher (born 1965) produced during the past fifteen years, alongside works created in collaboration with Dutch photographer and filmmaker Edgar Cleijne. E. Gallagher exhibits graphic works, paintings and film installations that express her interest in subjective and collective histories, their temporal remnants and propensity for utopia.
Notions of hybridisation, decent, migration and domination are among the themes she explores. It would be unfair to relegate the exhibition and the works on display to the simple category (or label) of Afrofuturism, to which her art has been commonly linked. Indeed, E. Gallagher exhibits black skin transformed and whitened in advertisements that she modifies (DeLuxe, 2004–2005); she uncovers images of faces/masks by scratching at the paper’s surface (Morphia, 2008–2012); she covers her canvases with a deep and lustrous hue like ebony (Black Paintings, 1998–2002); and finally draws our attention to the discrimination that African-American communities still face (Highway Gothic, 2017). Yet, far from delivering a bitter, pessimistic account of the recollected stories that her works reveal, E. Gallagher urges us to consider these pressing issues from the angle of the liquid transformations to which the title refers. Borrowed from “Photography and Liquid Intelligence,” an essay written by Jeff Wall in 1989, the title here prolongates the opposition formulated by Wall between water, its inherent properties of dissolution and imprecision, and the “dry” aspect of photography and film as an “imposed form”. In the work of E. Gallagher, collages, accumulations and overlays play with subtle opacities that contradict dim lights and transparencies: cyanotypes saturate the space where the ensemble of Highway Gothic is displayed; drawings with partially blank surfaces. The artist convenes other references through the works presented: the Suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich (Negroes Battling in a Cave, 2016), the abstract canvases of Frank Stella or even the comics by George Herriman (Dance You Monster, 2000).
Ellen Gallagher, Morphia, 2012, ink, watercolour, egg tempera, pencil and collage on cut paper, frame structure: steel and glass, 79.5 x 65.6 cm, 31 1/4 x 25 7/8 in., Courtesy Ellen Gallagher & Hauser & Wirth
Her last installation, Osedax (2010), explicitly paids tribute to Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick (1851). The 16 millimetre film evokes the disappearance of the whale via a slow dissolution of a shipwreck populated by cormorants that sometimes land there before it sinks. As the climactic installation in Liquid Intelligence, this final work metaphorically addresses social, economic and political debates, notably related to the Anthropocene. Although E. Gallagher’s drawings, paintings and films express her interest in biology, marine life, and the shifting character of both aquatic and human phenomena, it is regrettable that these ecological concerns are not further developed by the artist, particularly in regard to the energy consumed to operate certain works on display.
Liquid Intelligence, from 2 February to 28 April 2019 at Wiels (Brussels, Belgium).