Ellen Gallagher is of interest particularly if we compare her aesthetic strategy to that of her predecessors. Essentially Gallagher takes advertisements and deconstructs them but she does so in a way that is very different from earlier work by artists such as Hans Haacke and Barbara Kruger, and the fundamental difference in her work is due to its autobiographical dimension and its focus on the issue of racial identity. Haacke and Kruger were influenced primarily by the pioneering work of John Heartfield, and there is seriousness in their work that echoes the tone of Heartfield’s work. Haacke also used humour on occasion but what is different in Gallagher’s work is the way in which the humour is foregrounded. And where Haacke and Kruger focused on serious political issues, on the surface at least, it appears that Gallagher concentrates on the topic of hair. As a black American, for Gallagher, the issue of hair is, in fact, political. In DeLuxe”, 2004-2005, Gallagher appropriates black-and-white advertisements from black illustrated magazines such as “Ebony,” “Our World,” and “Sepia”. She has a collection that spans from 1939 to 1972 (Gallagher 2005). The advertisements are for hair products and other products and services. Gallagher deconstruct such texts principally via the application of plasticine. The use of a toy medium in the context of artwork that has political connotations effectively deconstructs the seriousness often associated with political art. The effect is to seduce the viewer using the seduction is a medium for persuasion.
Reportedly, Gallagher was drawn to the wig advertisements because of their grid-like structure and this is reflected in her mode of display. Later she became influenced by the ‘narratives’ accompanying such advertisements. She explains:
But as I began looking through them, the wig ads themselves had such a language to them—so worldly—that referred to other countries, La Sheba…this sort of lost past. I started collecting the wig ads themselves. And then I realized that I also had a kind of longing for the other stories, the narratives, wanting to bring them back into the paintings and wanting the paintings to function through the characters of the ads—to function as a kind of chart or a map of this lost world (Gallagher 2005)
In contrast to Haacke and Kruger, in Gallagher’s work even the issue of racial identity is backgrounded in favour of a more poetic mode of expression. The lost past to which Gallagher refers is her own past which is to say the past of her race. Her work is about both personal identity and racial identity, it is also about imagining her identity. She meditates, for example, on the actual people who modelled for the advertisements that she uses, she notes:
I know I’m looking at someone who was eighteen in 1939, as opposed to somebody who was eighteen in 1970. And even though … they’re now wearing my plasticine form and their eyes have been whited-out … there’s a way in which their specificity is undeniable. And I find that really moving. (Gallagher 2005)
Gallagher appears to be stressing that her manipulations of her appropriated images is not derogatory instead there is a sympathy for the subject matter they are apart the past a sense they are a part of her. Her manipulation of these advertisements is not simply a means of making humourous comments upon them it is also about weaving a personal narrative identity.