Ellen Gallagher (born December 16, 1965) is an American artist. Her work has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions and is held in the permanent collections of many major museums.
Gallagher was born on December 16, 1965 in Providence, Rhode Island. Referred to as African American, she is of biracial ethnicity; her father’s heritage was from Cape Verde, in Western Africa (but he was born in the United States), and her mother’s background was Caucasian Irish Catholic.
Gallagher studied writing at Oberlin College in Ohio (1982–84). Then she attended Studio 70 in Fort Thomas, Kentucky in 1989 before earning a degree in fine arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1992. Her art education further continued in 1993 at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.
Gallagher’s influences include the paintings of Agnes Martin and the repetitive writings of Gertrude Stein. Some of Gallagher’s work involves repetitively modifying advertising found in African American focused publications such as Ebony, Sepia, and Our World. Her most famous pieces are her grid-like collages of magazines grouped together into larger pieces. Examples of these are eXelento (2004), Afrylic, (2004), and DeLuxe, (2005). Each of these works contains as many as or more than 60 prints employing techniques of photogravure, spit-bite, collage, cutting, scratching, silkscreen, offset lithography and hand-building. Themes related to race are often evident in Gallagher’s work, sometimes using pictographs, symbols, codes and repetitions. “Sambo lips” and “bug eyes,” references to the Black minstrel shows, are often scattered throughout Gallagher’s works. Certain characters are also used repeatedly, such as the image of the nurse or the “Pegleg” character that sometimes populate her page‘s iconography. Some of her pieces may explicitly reference the issue of race while also having a more subtle undercurrent related to race.
Her media include painting, works on paper, film and video. She has made innovative use of materials, such as creating a unique variation on scrimshaw by carving images into the surface of thick sheets of watercolor paper and drawing with ink, watercolor, and pencil. These works depict sea creatures, of the mythical undersea world of Drexciya, which were the progeny of slaves who had drowned. This mythology had been conceived by a musical duo of that name, from Detroit. Gallagher commented upon the process of creating these pieces: “The way that these drawings are made is my version of scrimshaw, the carving into bone that sailors did when they were out whaling. I imagine them in this overwhelming, scary expanse of sea where this kind of cutting would give a focus, a sense of being in control of something.” In some of her early pieces, she painted and drew on sheets of penmanship paper she had pasted onto canvas