Liquid Intelligence
Ellen Gallagher at WIELS in Brussels

In 1986, when she was 28, Ellen Gallagher spent a semester abroad on an oceanographic research ship. The expedition explored the behavior of sea butterflies – small snails that move underwater with the help of wings. Gallagher caught the delicate creatures at night and drew them during the day. This experience is reflected in her series Watery Ecstatic, executed from 2001 to 2007. In this drawing cycle, Gallagher created an underwater world that oscillates between scientific precision and pure fantasy. Jellyfish and corals are juxtaposed with mermaids with octopus heads and algae hair. These watercolor drawings are among the most beautiful works on view in Liquid Intelligence. The exhibition at WIELS in Brussels shows how the work of the African-American artist, born in 1965, has evolved over the last 20 years, from her early works on paper to her latest multimedia installations. WIELS is regarded as a pioneering European platform for contemporary art. Deutsche Bank is one of the museum’s partners, and the bank’s “Artist of the Year” presentations of Wangechi Mutu and Yto Barrada were shown at the museum.

Gallagher is a master of montage and draws on myriad sources, including science fiction, archive material, and relics of pop culture. Also, there are repeated references to art history. Advertising images from African-American lifestyle magazines that Gallagher grotesquely distorts with beads, rhinestones, and plasticine wigs burgeon between grid structures typical of Minimal Art. Unusual techniques such as photogravure, tattoo, and gold leaf inlay give these works a powerful aesthetic effect. An example is DeLuxe (2004-5). The 60-part portfolio is on exhibit at WIELS and Gallagher is represented with it in the Deutsche Bank CollectionDeLuxe is on view in The World of Paper, the opening exhibition of the PalaisPopulaire, until the beginning of January.

Gallagher’s series Morphia, realized between 2008 and 2012, is also outstanding. The two-page aquarelles with forms between abstraction and figuration are presented between glass panes, attesting to Gallagher’s enduring fascination with the process of transformation. But the central theme of the artist, who lives in New York and Rotterdam, is an investigation of African-American history. Watery Ecstatic is much more than a fantastic excursion into marine biology. The series alludes to Drexciya, the “black Atlantis,” an invention of the eponymous electro music duo from Detroit. Residing in this mythical underwater realm are the unborn children of pregnant women from slave ships who were thrown overboard and died during the passage from Africa to the Caribbean. Drexciya is a kind of black utopia, a shelter far away from the cruelties of the above-water world.

The construction of Interstate 10, a highway that links the east and west coasts of the southern United States, is also connected with brutal contempt for black culture. Gallagher’s installation Highway Gothic (2017), a joint project with Dutch artist and filmmaker Edgar Cleijne, refers to this project. The highway, begun in the late 1950s, not only intersects the largest marshlands in the USA. To build it, 5,000 houses of New Orleans residents were torn down despite massive protests. That meant the end of the traditional African-American-influenced shopping district around Clairborne Avenue. For Highway Gothic, Gallagher and Cleijne amalgamated film projections and printed banners on which images and text overlap and which glow in gentle shades of blue. Like many of Gallagher’s works, Highway Gothic poetically imparts bitter historical truths that still have an impact today.    

Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: Liquid Intelligence
2/2/2019 – 4/28/019
WIELS, Brussels