Ellen Gallagher: wigs, waterworlds and Wile E Coyote

Ellen Gallagher: wigs, waterworlds and Wile E Coyote

The Guardian

Bim Adewunmi

Adverts from black magazines, Plasticine, eyeballs – in the work of Ellen Gallagher, it’s all woven together into something new. Bim Adewunmi visits her chaotic Rotterdam studio

Throughout our interview, Ellen Gallagher makes frequent trips to a large bookcase on the other side of her studio, pulling out items she thinks are relevant and interesting. By the time I leave, I have a list of names written down on a piece of paper: people from the realms of visual art and literature whose work Gallagher implores me to seek out.

Overlooking the port of Rotterdam, her studio is a whitewashed space bathed in light, with vast windows and occasional glimpses of passing clouds via skylights. It is busy and not especially tidy: the artist’s red, paint-spattered desk is cluttered with books, little knives and intricate paper cutouts. You get the impression, however, that she knows where things are. On the walls are a couple of newer paintings: abstract, blue, serene. On a low table, there are proofs of the catalogue for AxME, her new show at the Tate Modern in London. Its title is a play on the fictional Acme corporation that supplied Wile E. Coyote with mail-order gadgets in the cartoon Roadrunner, as well as a reference to the African-American vernacular for “Ask me”.

Born in Rhode Island in 1965, to a black father of Cape Verdean extraction and a white Irish Catholic mum, Gallagher studied writing before attending art school in Boston. She is probably best known in the UK for Coral Cities, which appeared at Tate Liverpool in 2007. The show featured Watery Ecstatic, a series of paintings inspired by the myth of Drexciya, or the Black Atlantis – an underwater city populated by the descendents of Africans thrown off slave ships. Gallagher’s fantastical lost souls and eerie sealife fascinated the writer Jackie Kay, who called her work “jazz on a huge canvas”. The playwright Bonnie Greer is a big fan, too…

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