Speaking of hair, but not “down there,” if you put your face right up to one of Ellen Gallagher’s small drawings or collages, like a bear would to a beehive, they turn surly. Most of the 17 notebook-sized images that make up this quiet but brash exhibition derive from high school yearbooks and vintage wig ads from Ebony and Black Stars—magazines addressed, as one of the advertisements puts it, “to the Afro-inclined client.” Gallagher’s art is precious and hermetic. It doesn’t pull you in from across a room. It sits and waits. Which turns out to be enough.
While a large, white-painted jungle gym shows her trying to translate her ideas into three dimensions, the real action is on the walls. Like a latter-day Barbara Kruger, Gallagher makes us look, read, and get antsy at the same time. Altering each one of these appropriated pages, she might replace one wig with another, or color black hair blond. She likes to cut the paper, put little bug-eyes or hot-dog lips all over, change the faces, insert text, black out words, or white out eyes. Everything has been tampered with.
Obviously, Gallagher’s revisions have to do with race and stereotypes. But what distinguishes her from legions who use similar strategies isn’t how clear she makes her intentions, it’s the weird voodoo that inhabits her work. Gallagher is the rare socially conscious artist whose message is misleading and private. Everything is oddly off balance and perverse. Hit or miss, Gallagher nails it often enough here to keep you guessing and on your toes.