Thursday, 9 May 2013
AxME at the Tate
I've listened to Ellen Gallagher on Radio 4, and she seems good humoured, interesting and engaging.
I found it tougher to appreciate her artwork in her huge AxME exhibition at the Tate Modern. Maybe it was the sheer scale, or perhaps the need for me to have more of an understanding ahead of the viewing?
The show is still very new, and weirdly I thought I could smell fresh paint or paste as I walked in and noticed the walls covered with what looked like the fine lines of Gallagher's own drawings (Yes, I did sniff the walls - a first for me).
A large proportion of the work related to important African-American topics. Slavery, finding identity, social pressures and insecurities. I could get the idea, but at times it felt overwhelming. Maybe that was the point.
I looked at a painting called Oh! Susanna - which was reflective of the original slave song. Of course, the song became a folksy standard via Stephen Foster and the painting depicts the make-up eyes and mouths once used to caricature black minstrels in American popular culture. These carnival-like miniature eyes and mouths then popped up again on another range of paintings showing further arrangements related to a similar theme. I think there was an important message about subjugation and its universal adoption, but ironically also a risk of the same theme's dilution by over-use.
Similarly with a series about hair and wigs.
Vintage repurposed advertisements about changing a racial identity. Original editorial exploitative of racial insecurities. Emphasised by the artist showing the new adapted and aspirational hairstyles in yellow plasticine. I got the general idea, but there were then so many versions of it (hundreds?) that I almost didn't know where to look.
In another room, there were what at first looked like a range of empty frames. I was alone in the room (which also had a large metal framed structure in the centre) and wondered if I'd accidentally strayed into an area that was still being assembled. Then I saw someone else looking. The picture frames did contain careful paper cuts and effects applied across the canvas.
Another room had huge black canvases, with carefully arranged cutouts of wigs, lips and other forms pasted on, seemingly forming other larger shapes and all encapsulated in a black film. I could understand that these pictures required effort to view effectively. Stand in front and they go shiny black. Stand to the side and you can only see a part of the work. The scale was huge, there were clear thematic connections between works, but by now the repetitions were somehow causing me to disengage.
Occasionally there was a picture that stood out as a more accessible work. The Egyptian Abu Simbel temples, adapted with African faces, and an Afrofuturistic spaceship arriving, probably landing with a jazzy Sun Ra soundtrack. It still had the 'eyes', but there was a whimsical and mythical quality that stood it apart.
All along it was making me wonder about this artist's process. Maybe the repetition of themes was emphasising the scale of the situations being depicted? Maybe it was obsessive? Maybe it was trying to make sure the viewer would not forget? Perhaps it was a curator's challenge to find the right filter?
I'm glad I visited, it left a strong impression, but I can't help thinking it might be a case where less could have been more.