Tate Modern

Fictional company Acme, best remembered from cartoon Wile E Coyote bears an unexpected influence for the title of Ellen Gallagher’s retrospective, AxME. Playing upon an ironic relationship between precision and unpredictability, Coyote uses Acme’s efficiently delivered, yet failure prone traps and explosives in his many attempts to ensnare the Road Runner.

The continual regeneration of order and disruption emulates the basis of Gallagher’s visual language. From painting and drawing to film, collage and sculpture, Gallagher administers her own vast array of techniques to re-occurring themes and motifs, creating structured surfaces that are disrupted and intervened by patterns and extensive mark-making.

It is important to note that, unlike other artist retrospectives, such as the major Gerhard Richter retrospective a few years ago, AxME is non-chronological. This is not a linear historical walk through of an artist’s development through time and materials that some viewers enjoy; it is not a Retrospective in the traditional sense. This method of display would not suit Gallagher. The work, from many different periods is always in flux and in dialogue; she manipulates recurrent thoughts, looking backwards and forwards at the same time, generating a flexible structure that eludes the capture of categorization.

AxME begins by familiarizing the viewer with themes of race, identity, gender and the unknown, ideas that are echoed later in the exhibition. Her well known grid like paintings, collaged with handwriting practice paper, evoke past memories of childhood, learning and vulnerability. In Oogaboogah (1994) the aligned surface is a ground for isolated areas of repetitive globular, bean like shapes. Viewed as abstraction or minimalism from afar, the tiny patterns represent the stereotypical lips of African minstrels, calling into question Gallagher’s own origins and childhood experience, along with a darker side of American history.

Gallagher speaks of issues that are prominent in her past heritage, dealing with the repression of women. The ‘yellow paintings’ are Gallagher’s way of transporting images of black women from the social constraints of the 1940–70’s. Found archival matter from black lifestyle magazines of the time include adverts for wigs and cosmetics.

‘The wigs admit an anxiety about identity and loss; they map integration, the civil rights movement right through to Vietnam and women’s rights.’ Yellow plasticine is playfully stylized on to the black and white images, confusing the domestic wigs with futuristic and alien like helmets. Rows and rows of these identity parades make up Double Natural (2002), Pomp-Bang (2003) and Afrylic (2004) the large grids may lock them out of their historical catalogues but the need to transform to be socially accepted still resonates within the underlying ephemera.

Marine creatures from the deep and futuristic organisms overlap and dissect figurative forms in the Morphia series (2008-12). The double sided drawings are displayed in slightly cumbersome looking frames, but this may be forgiven as the viewer is allowed to weave between the drawings. Gallagher’s incredible skill in cutting, scraping and manipulating paper enable her to control what is revealed or hidden from sight. Figures are cloaked in aqueous ink and watercolour taking on new uncanny hybrid forms. In some areas the paper is cut right through; creating windows from one image to the next, the ever changing proximities between the work and viewer delicately build and destruct further compositions.

Arising from the ‘yellow pictures’, ‘morphia series’ and other works in AxME are notions of masks and disguises. Evocative of different cultures or social interventions of which can be exhausting, concluding in the loss of identity and questioning who you are and who you are meant to be. Gallagher always returns to this, but in each revision the ideas are developed through the dynamics of unpredictability and control. ‘It’s a shifting loop that with each rotation doesn’t line up precisely.’