I've known Ellen Gallagher since way back when. Or more accurately, I first met Ellen when she was just out of art school and living in Boston, back in the late 1980s. I had just joined the Dark Room Collective and Ellen was often at the Inman Street readings, exhibiting her artwork, drawing, hanging out, and generally being a lovely, gentle, and warm spirit. I didn't know her well, but we did chat from time to time. What else I recall: her smile mixing amiability and canniness, her quiet manner, and her determination to create art, which was what the Dark Room was in part about. She's kept on creating art, very fine art, in fact, for which she's now become quite famous.
Last fall the prestigious Gagosian Gallery in Manhattan held a solo show of Ellen's work, and just a few months ago, an exhibit of her recent work, "DeLuxe," opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in Manhattan. The specially created photogravures in "DeLuxe" rework imagery taken from black magazines, focusing on hair: she has painted over wigs in ads she's collected, from the late 1930s through the 1970s, geared to black women, with variously colored plasticene bouffants and bobs, while covering, framing, masking and otherwise transforming the figures' faces. She has grouped some of these images into larger grids that, like her earlier work, don't immediately disclose their complexity, careful draftspersonship, or profundity.
"Deluxe," from what I can tell, is chatting over the fence in terms of familial resemblance with Adrian Piper, in its deployment of grids, its mingling of media, its movement between conceptual abstraction and ontological critique, its utilization of process, its historical consciousness. It defies, unlike the work of some other contemporary artists, easy ideological analysis. Like some of Nayland Blake's works, it avoids a reductive reversal of (racial or sexual) stereotypes. Like both Piper and Blake, Gallagher is playing on a sometimes fraught black cultural aesthetic and prosthetic--here hair, and in specific, the wig and black female imaginary, and more specifically self-representation, as viewed both intraracially and extraracially. The images, as shown in Edward Lewine's January New York Times review, were arresting (I intend to look at them more carefully this upcoming week, when I hit the exhibit), but on first glance, I immediately thought of palimpsests; the underlying faces and heads were not exactly or completely erased or effaced, but rather transformed, revised and revisioned, with a futuristic edge. "DeLuxe" is conversant with Gallagher's prior work, and like it continues to mark out new spaces for (black) art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Check out Ellen's show if you can. It runs till May 15, 2005.
Today, on Bejata.com, guest contributor Mark Tuggle details another life cut short, that of 52-year-old black sgl Bronx-resident Marvin Page, who was horifically murdered in his apartment, right across the street from a police precinct. The police apparently have no leads, and as Tuggle points out, the local media are resorting to their usual dismissive rhetoric, which in essence says, "Black, gay men's behavior is the problem" and "Black and gay people have little to zero value."
On Keith Boykin's Website, he notes the death of Washington, DC LGBT activist Wanda Alston, who was found slain in her home. Last fall, Mayor Anthony Williams had appointed her to head the capital's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs office, and Keith also notes that she had previously served as the mayor's special assistant to the District's gay community, as a DC delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and as a former board member of the National Organization for Women (NOW). A friend from DC, who knew her, is as shocked by the killing as Keith is. Though I didn't know either Marvin Page or Wanda Alston, my heart goes out to both their families and friends, to all who knew them. With each bit of news like this, amidst all the other grave problems our society and world are facing, I feel ever more steeled to pose and answer the question, "What can we do to turn things around?"
A smaller and more immediate gesture: write these names down and say them aloud, repeat them, at some point in the future, to ensure they're not forgotten, as an act of memory, and resistance, and love.