Barack Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic convention made an implicit truth explicitly clear: Color is less relevant than our obsession with it. In the art world this obsession plays out as the criterion of race is used disproportionately and only in connection with certain artists. This is obviously charged terrain, rife with complications. Nonetheless, discussing artists of color exclusively or mainly in terms of race or identity politics is constraining and misleading: It ghettoizes art, shortchanges artists, is often a way of not talking about the strengths and weaknesses of works themselves, and keeps things micro, not macro.
This isn’t overwrought hand-wringing about p.c. art, an attempt to erase biography, or a reactionary call for a “return to standards.” It would be absurd and creepy not to talk about race when talking about certain artists. As Glenn Ligon wrote, “It’s hard to leave your body behind when your body is always being thrown up in your face.” Yet the standard used to discuss “black art” is as double as it is damaging. No one analyzes my work as that made by a white, middle-aged, middle-class, balding, Jewish man with glasses. Needless to say, I know that everything I do is shaped by these things. But they’re not brought up around my work. Perhaps they should be. It would be instructive to hear white heterosexual artists considered according to racial stereotypes: e.g., in Jeff Koons’s Cicciolina sex paintings, you never see the artist’s face and his erect penis in the same shot, suggesting that a body double may have been used. Could Caucasian genital insecurity be rearing its little head?
In any case, the criterion of race is often invoked to extol the work of Ellen Gallagher, who, according to her supporters, effectively deals with “historical indicators of race,” “the construction of the African-American identity,” and “the languages of visual racism.” Gallagher’s ambitious new show, her fourth solo in New York since 1996, displays her by now familiar strengths, tics, and shortcomings. In spite of its intriguing roundabout installation, it is too big by a third and implies that Gallagher is on the verge of taking a bold step but hasn’t yet made it. Without a doubt, Gallagher deals with race. “Sambo lips” and “bug eyes” have often cropped up in her art. Since 2000, she’s modified vintage advertisements for hair-straightening and skin-bleaching products from so-called “race publications” like Ebony and Black Stars. With Gallagher, as in America, race is simultaneously in your face and beneath the surface. Good or bad, her work often produces a flinch of recognition delivered with decorative flair.
The problem is, Gallagher keeps producing the same flinch in similar ways. Her forte has always been her fabulous feel for materials and process; her silky, assiduous touch; and her mania for covering surfaces with repeating images. The way she constructs paintings and scratches away at paper and now film is inventive, eye-catching, and kitschy all at once. She has a Kiki Smith–like proclivity to work well with many materials, but neutralizes this by getting formulaic.
Her show’s centerpiece is a nicely narrow gallery with five enormous paintings. Each has a grid of 369 heads from ads, every one of which has been ornamented with a yellow plasticine helmet or hairdo. Seeing one painting is pretty powerful, even if I kept thinking of the Rolling Stones album cover for Some Girls. Seeing five of them is redundant (and she’s supposedly making three more). Encouragingly, the two most recent canvases are the best; look closely, and you’ll notice that the wigs are getting more eccentric, even if it is in a super-control-freak way. As a longtime fan, I kept thinking it would be fantastic to see one of these heads huge, outfitted in the most outrageous headdress in all of art history: Aztec headgear by way of art nouveau, sand castles, and topological maps. Doing this might bring her into close proximity to Chris Ofili, but it would break her pattern and force her hand. She could tinker with the grid, work asymmetrically, experiment with color, or have some of the strange underwater creatures from her new drawings swimming around on the surface of the painting—anything to disrupt the monotony. Essentially, Gallagher needs to go all out. She should square her elegant Agnes Martin and her campy Andy Warhol sides with her inner Joseph Cornell, and remain as mysterious and nasty as she wants to be.
Lastly, the way Gallagher deals with race, while crafty, is often obvious and unchallenging. This negates the anger, menace, and whimsy in her work. In addition to her stunning physicality, and beyond race, are deep concerns for ritual, fiction, fantasy, and history. Hints of this appear throughout the show, especially in the marvelous new films, as well as in the white-on-white works on paper, in which you can sometimes make out great fishes being attacked by creatures with teeny black faces in their tentacles. Previously, Gallagher has alluded to the awful Middle Passage, to slaves being cast overboard at sea, and a “Black Atlantis.” These things continue to seethe within her work. They need to boil up more and not always be filtered through an accepted conceptual apparatus that for now is rendering them more safe than incendiary.