Huddled over a pile of vintage magazines, artist Ellen Gallagher tears out advertisements for wigs, combs and bleaching cream. Gallagher proceeds to scratch out the eyes of the figures in the ads before turning to her collection of googly eyes, glitter and clay. With the addition of new eyes, hairstyles and accessories, Gallagher transforms the advertisements, creating new messages and characters.
Gallagher’s repurposing of beauty and hair product advertisements from 1930s and 1970s African American magazines culminated in “DeLuxe,” a portfolio of 60 small prints. On loan from David Lasry P ’16, “DeLuxe” is now on display in “Collection Intervention: Ellen Gallagher’s DeLuxe,” a new exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art.
Curated by Alli Kemmerer, the Addison’s Scott Mead Curator of Photography and Curator of Art after 1950, “Collection Intervention: Ellen Gallagher’s DeLuxe” spans five galleries. In the first room hangs “DeLuxe” and other similar prints, while the four other rooms revolve around visual themes that are present in “DeLuxe,” including the grid, the combination of words and images and the appropriation of found material and imagery. Besides “DeLuxe,” all of the pieces in the exhibition come from the Addison’s permanent collection.
“[‘DeLuxe’] is a piece I’ve admired for a really long time. [Lasry] offered to lend [the Addison] the piece whenever we wanted it, and so that sort of spurred the idea, ‘Well, why don’t we borrow [‘DeLuxe’] and make it the centerpiece of the next exhibition and then have works from our permanent collection respond to that piece?’” said Kemmerer.
The original advertisement in “Mr. Terrific,” one of the prints in “DeLuxe,” attempts to sell a product called Johnson’s Ultra Wave. In bold text, the ad proclaims “Sa-a-y this is terrific!” while a longer paragraph claims the product will “culture-groom” the user’s hair. Gallagher re-imagined the advertisement by placing bright yellow clay over the hair of the man in the ad. The new hair swirls around his head, while curls of white clay break through the yellow clay.
Another print in “DeLuxe” is “Black Combs.” Gallagher transformed the original advertisement selling “permanently styled stretch wigs” by giving the models in the advertisement new hairstyles with black clay. Gallagher also scraped off the eyes of models so that their sockets are white. Meanwhile, small toy eyes dot the clay hair, and stickers of eyes are placed in rows in the top right corner of the piece.
“On one level, [‘DeLuxe’] is super important because it pushes the boundary of what a print can be – not only because it’s made of 60 pieces but because [Gallagher] hand applied three-dimensional materials to the print. The pieces passed through the printing press multiple times and they even used a tattoo machine,” said Kemmerer, “On top of the formal part of the process, [‘DeLuxe’] addresses so many themes from race and gender to the notion of beauty and modernism. [Gallagher’s] work in general focuses on modernism but also mass culture and social history.”
The exhibit also showcases Sol Lewitt’s “Fifteen Postcards.” Made of 15 postcards sent over a period of 14 days, Lewitt arranged the postcards into rows and columns. The far right of the four columns shows the address side of the postcards, while the rest of the columns contain reproductions of the postcards’ images in different combinations of yellow, black, red and blue.
“When [Gallagher] was making ‘DeLuxe,’ she was first drawn to the wig advertisements because they were gridded in the magazines. ‘Fifteen Postcards’ also uses the grid as an organizing principle. There is also the combination of words and letters, because these are postcards between Lucy Lippard [AA ’54], the donor of ‘Fifteen Postcards,’ and the artist Sol Lewitt. It really is a conversation back and forth between the two, and I feel [Gallagher] is having a conversation with her materials,” said Kemmerer.
Occupying its own gallery in the exhibit are 11 prints from Kara Walker’s 15-print series “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War.” In each print, Walker placed a large silhouette over a sketch of a Civil War scene from the old political magazine “Harper’s Weekly.” The silhouette thus conceals certain elements of the original, appropriated sketch while making other details more prominent.
“By adding her own layers – the imagery of the silhouettes – Walker] is creating her own narrative. The ‘Harper’s Weekly’ drawings were just one section of society’s view on the Civil War and so Walker is adding a wider viewpoint. She is also looking back to history from the present, so she’s melding time and what we know now in the 21st century with what was happening then and what people were thinking,” said Kemmerer.
“Collection Intervention: Ellen Gallagher’s DeLuxe” is on display until May 17, 2015.