At Two Palm Press in SoHo, Ellen Gallagher was putting the finishing touches on DeLuxe, an edition of sixty collaged prints that are hung in a neat grid on the wall. As you step close to the wall where it is all hung with pins, your eyes move from image to image, magazine pages that have been heavily annotated with notes, quirky drawings, doodles, and collages, as well as sculptural elements that could be mistaken for wax or bubble gum. Upon closer inspection there is layer upon layer of engravings, making each page at times so dense that the content is difficult to decipher. The work is currently on view at the Whitney Museum until May 15.
Praxis (Rail): The whole thing is really similar to a book.
Ellen Gallagher: DeLuxe isn’t a single-file linear narrative, the way you might read a book or a magazine, page by page. The pages have been unbound, transformed, reordered, and stacked into a grid five pages down by 12 pages across. Content is built spatially. Within several pages there may be interrelationships that you can read simultaneously and in multiple directions.
Rail: So to read it top to bottom or without narrative structure is a completely different way of reading?
Gallagher: There are also purely formal sequences that are constructed, like Blow-Up, Duke, FBI, Josephine Baker—these bursts of color sequences that exist in DeLuxe in the same way they existed in the magazines. Advertising was always a problem for these magazines—not as many full-page color advertisements like there are today. Every ten pages or so, a color ad would just appear. And I built that structure back into the grid. We found someone to make four-color lithographs of Blow-Up, Josephine Baker, Duke, the FBI agent, Isaac Hayes—these color lithographs occur throughout the grid with the same density that they occurred in the magazines.
Rail: This feels like that kind of magazine—you could look at a page forever and read so much from it, or you could skip a few articles. I may look at this page for a while and not read half of it.
Gallagher: And there are densities and repeating relationships between characters and, on a larger scale, between pages. The hamsters that occur in DeLuxe also appear in the paintings as advertisements for a utopian hamster nursery, odorless, that you could construct at home. I found the hamster ads would often be placed next to an advertisement for nylons or aluminum garlic pills for upset stomachs.
Rail: Interrelationships, meaning at a distance? Or historical and narrative relationships?
Gallagher: I don’t know if I would call these repetitions and densities a narrative. It’s more about spatial relationships—the idea of something lurking below the surface that comes up and is articulated in one drawing and is felt in a different way in the drawing next to it. “Ice or Salt” reoccurs in sequence with the submerged forms in “Butter Knife,” leading into the waters of “Moby Dick.” The Black Atlantic sublime is again a spirit in “Raveen”—a full-color advertisement promising a sublime head of hair that is also on fire. A fake ice cube soothes her lip but might have caused the sinking of the Titanic etched below.
Rail: I love that Titanic, it is such an incredible event.
Gallagher: The thing that’s interesting is this idea of journalism and the actual person or event. I am interested in the combination of journalistic fact, like, Eunice Rivers is a real person. Peg-Leg Bates is a real person. Isaac Hayes is a real person. Captain Lloyd Sealy is real person. And they function both as themselves and as this other presence in the work. It’s about multiple readings of the characters.
Rail: So there are all these stories, all these histories, this is going to be displayed, and this is a beautiful artwork, it’s a visual artwork. There’s a tremendous amount of cultural comment and stories and history that you are weaving together here. Are those talked about enough, or at all? Because there’s the layers of all these, all the prints, and they’re gorgeous. But all these stories, to me, are fascinating and also complex enough that we could talk about any one of those for a while and not come to any conclusions.
Gallagher: The thing I realized is that they function more as ghosts, for this idea of something passing or something lost. The magazines do have this density to them as well. My initial attraction to them, especially pre-desegregation, before the ’60s, is that they are incredibly dense and incredibly radical press. The magazines chart a specific cultural moment that passes. Some of the stories are famous, but some of the stories are more oblique, like the Raquel Welch-Shirley Chisholm character doesn’t really have that same kind of readability that it had in the ’70s. Together they chart that moment. I see this as a kind of map of my reading, now in 2005, my reading of that time.
Rail: It’s also a cultural comment now. It’s a cultural critique now. I’m not looking at it only in that way, but how much action does that part get?
Gallagher: The idea of cultural critique gets seen as very static because people have a very static relationship to race.
Rail: Right, you are either with them or not. They either agree with you or don’t.
Gallagher: And so, the way the work gets read is often in terms of black female positive self-imagery. And these stories about hamsters and nurses and sea captains that maybe only have a tangential relationship to race, except that it’s me subjectively pushing them forward as interesting stories to remember. I think it’s a pity if the more inscrutable characters get submerged under the more direct advertisements. However, advertisements also function as a kind of coda. If you look at how worldly they are, there are all these references to La Sheba, or Grecian curls, or Selassie swirls. These are references to the world. So the idea that this specificity belongs and exists within the world at large is what I think is missing when you say cultural critique, unfortunately. As if by addressing a specific culture you cannot also be addressing the world. When the Pope makes his address to the Vatican City he begins by saying, “Orbus et orbi.” He knows he is physically speaking to a particular audience that has gathered to hear his address, but he is also addressing the world at large. And I do think this work functions as critique, but not only that.
Rail: Really, it functions much more personally. Looking at it now, it makes more sense to me that it’s your story, it’s your personal story, and everyone doesn’t have to know. And you’re opening up books to pages that reference all kinds of things, but ultimately it’s a personal story. It doesn’t need to be a critique. People will react to that however they do. I mean, that I’m white, I look at your childhood stories, and I think my childhood wasn’t like that, but I suppose if I was black or something else I would also look at this in a way where I would be realizing that my childhood was so different. So it would be, in a way, all about that to me. Your work has always been about your personal language. That’s what I’ve been attracted to, getting to know your iconography.
Gallagher: But here I am definitely working with characters that are culturally recognizable, this body, this 1939 to 1970, this moment. The way the word Negro brings to mind something that is impossible with the words African American or black. A particular span of time, a something passing. There’s that idea of loss and ghosts. It’s something that’s more than just me. It’s about this stacking of my own resonances or dissonances with the material, but the material itself has a structure, which has a life through me, beyond me, before me, after me. It’s material that I am activating. I am making a private language within this material to reanimate this material. Each repetition is an initiation. These characters are initiated into this altered state, but you remember them from before I touched them.
Rail: It seems very personal to me now, it seems like one of the most personal pieces that you’ve done.
Gallagher: I think so. There is a figure in “Natural Look” holding her very large pocketbook in this classic Coretta Scott King elegant pose, one ankle slightly tilted behind her leading step. And you’ve also got bikini lady. They reference for me, more privately, this Redd Foxx joke. Do you remember when Shirley Chisholm was running for president?
Rail: What year was that?
Gallagher: It was in the ’70s. I remember as a kid when she was going to run for president, and it was a big deal. And Redd Foxx made this joke. Do you remember? It was at about the same time that Raquel Welch was in this caveman movie. Remember her bikini? It was kind of a wild—
Rail: It was made out of fur.
Gallagher: Yeah, yeah! Fur and seashells. So it was this bikini image, and Redd Foxx says, “Well, Shirley Chisholm may run for president, but I’d still rather fuck Raquel Welch.” That was his joke. So he said it, and it stuck with me. And what he thought he was making was just a generic sexist joke. But he was actually saying something more insidious and more self-deprecating. It was like, “No matter what you do, I would still desire this other thing.” The other thing that’s creepy: Redd Foxx’s wife wrote most of his material.
Rail: There are so many layers of meaning.
Gallagher: Because of this idea of infinite—I showed you all the etching plates, the layers that happen. So there’s the original collage, and then the collage is made into a film. The film is transferred onto a plate and made into a photogravure. So all of the cutting and layering, all the alterations I made to the original found magazine page are flattened out into a seamless image. Then I go to work again on the print—building it up, adding plasticine, coconut oil, watercolor; the intervention of the plate makes alteration infinite.
Rail: Right, and you keep reengraving plates from plates that have already been finished.
Gallagher: And using the computer to bring characters into the plate and alter them slightly—anything from a 19th-century photogravure technique to silk-screen to drypoint.
Rail: It’s collapsing and making it even more dense, and it makes it even more difficult to get some of the messages.
Rail: Yes. It makes me want to penetrate it. A lot of it is impenetrable, and I have to ask you about it because I’m curious about it.
Gallagher: But I don’t mind that.
Rail: Right, this Coretta Scott King—you say that and I see that, but I wouldn’t have known that before.
Gallagher: But this is the Shirley Chisholm-Raquel Welch dirty joke from Redd Foxx. It exists in my head but also in the world. They’ll always be together. Shirley Chisholm just passed away the other week, and so I think of Raquel Welch too. I’ll never separate them.
Rail: So you think it’s okay that a lot of it is impenetrable? This feels like something I could study for a while, or that I should. In a way, I want to ask you about historical allusions everywhere. It just feels like they’re stories for you to tell. But that’s not what is happening visually here. It interests me in wanting to know more. Is there a character that is being brought forward here?
Gallagher: I hope DeLuxe exists as kind of a picaresque. I like the structure of a picaresque novel, where it’s one character continually evolving through all these archetypal characters, which is so funny to me. I also very much like the form of Melville’s “The Confidence Man.” It starts off on a steamship, and at the beginning of each chapter or segment there appears a new character who inevitably turns out to be a huckster. The first image in the book is the sign “No confidence here,” meaning “no credit.” And it’s Melville’s meditation on the American character—is the American character a series of fractured sells or are we a single sell? The way the book takes form is you never know if it’s the same character in several different guises or whether we’re just a steamship filled with ourselves all pulling a trick. Are we a fractured self or are we just this one character—the con man. It’s basically a meditation that says if a culture loses its innocence, and we become so tough skinned that we lose our ability to be tricked, we lose that innocence. And what gets lost are the cords that allow us to give credit to each other. Those suspended links of disbelief. If you actually become so worldly and you lose that—if we are all so knowing, knowing of our own limitations, we can never really enter each other, we create these finite points ahead of time. What kind of culture are we, how can we really exist, if we have to be so future-fixed.
Rail: And ultimately so isolated.
Gallagher: I read somewhere that the word onos, which means “nostalgia,” appears for the first time in the Odyssey. So he is looking backward, but he has to go forward each time. He gets back in the boat, he has to continue traveling. He’s desperately trying to go home, but of course he must go forward and have all these adventures, and through his future he ends up back home.
Rail: When you talk about the imagery, there’s a freedom to it. It’s not like you’re doing it to every print. They way the paper is cut, the patterns—it’s not like Lichtenstein or somebody who’s just kind of doing your thing. The hand feels so free as to almost not be stylized at all. Of course, it is stylized, you see it, but there’s such a wide variation. I imagine a 14-year-old mind like that a little bit, but they’re not thinking about repeated forms, they’re not old enough to start stylizing. I don’t know if that brings it back to that innocence, but that is a kind of innocence, right?