Visual Art: Tate Modern, London

Charles Darwent on Ellen Gallagher: AxME - The dog ate my homework, Miss Gallagher

Why does this highly-rated American artist ask so much of us before we even look at her work?

Last week I spoke to a  gifted young painter, a Jerwood Fellow, about his work. The conversation went like this. Me: “The  two small pictures are particularly strong. I really like them.”

JF (alarmed): “Uh, I’m not sure ‘like’ is a word that can be used in critical discourse these days.”

So it goes. Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was nothing wrong with work that pleased, in whatever way it contrived to. Then someone invented critical theory, art schools became university departments, and pleasure went out of the window. Good painting might do a whole  thesaurus of things — ironise, deconstruct, conceptualise, “reference its own process”, etcetera – but it must on no account be likeable.

I have no doubt, by these lights, that Ellen Gallagher is a very good painter. The 47-year-old American is best known for her canvases, although, this being 2013, she also makes films and sculptures: one, Jungle Gym/Preserve, is in the new show of her work, AxME, at Tate Modern. There is nothing wrong with making art in different mediums – see Michelangelo. But it is the idea of Gallagher as a painter, of the kind of painting she does, that bothers me.

Let’s start with Double Natural (2002). This vast, yellow canvas, perhaps 7ft high and 10ft wide, is Gallagher’s best known. On it are pasted, in a grid 33 squares wide and 12 high, advertisements and cuttings from American black lifestyle magazines. (Gallagher’s father’s family came from Cape Verde.) All of these offer perfectability of a kind, or at least an idea of self-improvement. One woman beams at us from under a headline that says, unconvincingly, “I Am Happy”. Another asks, “Do you want men to OBEY YOU?”, while a third advertises an Amazing Liquid That Removes Corns.

It is hair that is Gallagher’s particular focus, though, as it is of the small ads she uses. The majority of these are for hairstyles or hair products. To these the artist has added plasticine hairdos – straightened bangs, cornrows, dreadlocks, flicks – moulded by hand and painted yellow. Gallagher has also blanked out her subjects’ eyes, turning them into zombies. Her point seems clear. Black women are sold a dream of white womanly perfection. She has taken that process to its deadening extreme by turning her women blonde.

To say that Double Natural is dislikeable is to state the obvious.  Its subject – the exploitation of racial insecurity for commercial gain – is not a pretty one, and Gallagher’s image would have no business being pretty. But the problem is that it isn’t anything else, either. Other than an immediate hit of macabre glibness, Double Natural just doesn’t deliver. The longer you look at it, the less you get back. Vacuousness in art can be extraordinarily powerful: Andy Warhol made an entire career out of it. But Gallagher’s painting isn’t empty in a good way. It is just empty.

Let me see if I can be clearer. Another work in this vast, 11-room show is called Bird in Hand. It, too, is vast. Like many contemporary artists, Gallagher has created her own myth-world, one figure of which is a one-legged tap-dancer called Pegleg. (Pegleg actually existed — one of the ads in Double Natural is for his show.) In Bird in Hand, he mutates into a pirate, his hair and half-leg doodling out to fill the canvas in tendrils that might be seaweed.

Gallagher is part of her own mythology. Prior to being an artist she studied marine biology, and did research into pteropods. The many works in her Watery Ecstatic series, given a whole room in this exhibition, start from an interest in sea-life – eels, urchins, octopi. The pictures are largely in watercolour and cut paper, and, as compositions, appear less to evolve than to mutate. You can see the reasoning. Life starts at Point A and wanders off where Darwin takes it: so why not art? Bird in Hand grows, pictorially, out of Gallagher’s own history and interests.

But does that make it a good painting? The abstract works of the Jerwood painter I spoke to stood on their own as images: you didn’t need to know his life story or theories on art to respond to them. To get Gallagher, you have to have done your homework. Her art is about understanding, not seeing; when she paints, she paints incidentally. Any other medium might have done – actually, her films seem to me far better than her canvases (Murmur: Super Boo is annoyingly unforgettable). But then many people disagree with me, and you may well be one of them.

To 1 Sep (020-7887 8888)

CRITICS' CHOICE

Small is beautiful: Calder After the War at London’s Pace gallery exhibits the American sculptor’s complex mobiles (above), made out of pieces small enough to post to his friend Marcel Duchamp (till 7 Jun). At the Ingleby gallery in Edinburgh, Garry Fabian Miller: The Middle Place reveals the changes in light, colour and atmosphere on a fixed line in the horizon, looking out over the Severn Estuary, plus more recent, camera-less light works on the theme of horizons.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory