Ellen Gallagher’s work across media deploys a vocabulary of signs and characters taken from sources as diverse as popular culture, marine biology, and historical depictions of race. Since 1997 Gallagher has produced monochromatic paintings that investigate the fugitive nature of blackness as both a color and a subjectivity. To make these works, she first adheres a loose grid of penmanship paper to the canvas and layers it with torn and painted pages from magazines such as Ebony. She incises the surface with a blade and then molds black rubber over the surface. Finally, she coats the surface with high-gloss enamel. A recent example of this process of accumulation and redaction is Negroes Battling in a Cave (2016), which takes its title from a racist phrase recently discovered under the composition of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915; State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). Like the black paint covering the inscription, the black rubber and enamel conceal yet contain the painting’s origins.
Further emphasizing how Gallagher’s shape-shifting signs bring materiality to both natural and social histories is a selection of two-sided drawings from her Morphia series (2008–12). These hybrid symbols evolve and mutate in relation to the viewer’s perception, resembling organic forms such as cells and marine creatures while also evoking various iconographies from Africa and its diaspora. Gallagher asserts that “a character like a jellyfish can be made up of several different bodies, can exist in different times, can be a character that is symbolic.” This fluidity between meanings and media and between states of being, like crystallizing lava, provokes the question, Are We Obsidian?