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Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Ellen Gallagher, 1997


Ellen Gallagher’s paintings are strange, funny, and smart.  At first glance, they appear to be abstract, textile-like fields.  But when you investigate more closely, a whole hieroglyphic world of tiny eyes, lips, and faces pops out.  Her fluid dialogue about race, gender, and class has made contemporary painting feel like it can be important again.
Ellen has been working in Provincetown this past year, but she stopped by to talk to us when she recently came to town.

Peter Halley:  I’ve always gotten the impression that you liked hanging out with write rs probably as much as, or more than, with artists? 
Ellen Gallagher:  Well, it’s not that I especially like hanging out with writers, but I don’t need to be around other artists in order to make art.  I do want to be around people who will come and look at the work and talk to me about it.  I don’t want to be isolated.

PH:  And you generally like what writers say about the work?
EG:  I don’t have every writer in Provincetown in my studio.  But some friends come in and talk to me.

PH:  And who’s been there?
EG:  Oh, I mean, nobody famous.

PH:  But we’re not interested in famous.
EG:  Actually, last year there were friends that were part of the Darkroom Collective, as just a coincidence they got into the Work Center.  People like Kevin Young and Tom Ellis.

PH:  The Darkroom Collective has a sort of ...­­­­­­­­­­
EG:  The Darkroom was this group of writers that started in Cambridge, Massachusetts­­­­.  I was connected with them back around 1989, when I was in art school.  They had this old rambling house and they got lots of interesting writers to come.  And they said I could be the art coordinator, which meant being the janitor.  Painting the walls or something.  But I got to have my show at the same time Samuel Delany gave a little talk.

PH:  Who is that?
EG:  He’s a writer I really like. I guess he’s a science fiction writer.  But it’s sort of about race and sex and he’s really interesting.

PH:  Is there a book he’s known for?
EG:  Dhalgren, Babel-17Madman, more recently.  Maybe not science fiction anymore.  He’s got a collection of essays out called Silent Interviews.

PH:  What is his take?  Is it futuristic science fiction?
EG:  Maybe.  You can never tell.  In Dhalgren, there’s this character, Kid, and he enters this city, maybe it’s a metaphor for New York.  Or New York is a metaphor for lots of people living together, dealing with that, and the terror.  And time for some characters closes in, and for other characters opens up in the same story.  You can’t really tell, it depends on where you are in the city.  Time is fluctuating.  And this guy, Kid, can’t remember his name.  He has no memory, he’s just traveling through the city with one shoe on, and meanwhile, his foot, the one that doesn’t have a shoe, is getting really filled with this crusty, black dirt.  Delany is really into secretions, bodily secretions, and that becomes a metaphor for memory.

PH:  Really?
EG:  Yeah, and I wouldn’t say he’s really erotic, but he’s really graphic.  It’s not at all sexy.  It’s just a detailed account of exchanges and dirt and moving.  So Kid gets deposited on, and every now and then he takes a bath and it’s sort of interesting.

PH:  And Kid’s is the voice that he sustains through the whole book?
EG:  Yeah.  And I love that he finds this old notebook, and it’s already filled up with some other writer’s work.  So he starts to fill in the other side of the page with his own work.  And he gives it to a famous poet, and he’s excited by this, and then he realizes, towards the end, that he especially loved the part he didn’t write. 

PH:  I can relate to that.
EG:  Yeah.

PH:  So he was there last year?
EG:  Oh, no, this was in 1989.  He came to the Darkroom and spoke while I had my crappy art up on the wall.  Didn’t notice it at all or anything, but I gave him a beer or something.      
PH:  Not living in New York, not living in the biggest cities, is your preference, or has been over the last few years.
EG:  I think I’m here a lot, though.

PH:  And what do you do here?
EG:  It’s pretty quiet.  I visit friends and look at work.

PH:  Going to galleries and museums?
EG:  Yeah, I go and do that by myself. 

PH:  Have you been seeing anything you like?   
EG:  I wanted to go see Rudolf Stingel’s show, but I got here too late.  Have you seen that?

PH:  I don’t see anything.
EG:  I’m going to see the de Kooning show.

PH:  What do you think of de Kooning?
EG:  Well, I’d like to see this work.  I haven’t seen a lot of it ...  Not all together.

PH:  I have this theory/fantasy about the late work.  He was becoming senile, and he imagined himself back in the ’30s, going into a fantasy state, and repainting his work from the ’30s.
EG:  That sounds like you, like you believe in that kind of internalized absurdity.  I mean, it’s interesting, especially since he painted from old work anyway.  He would have a slide up of an old piece and use that as a way in.

PH:  But ... he did?  With these?
EG:  Well, I don’t know if he did with these, but that was something he did.

PH:  And when you go to see shows, are your favorite things paintings or other things?
EG:  I’ll go look at anything and it’s all sort of okay with me. 

PH:  That’s a nice feeling.
EG:  Yeah.
PH:  So, can we talk about your work?
EG:  We can try.

PH:  I’d like to know more about the process.
EG:  Like what?

PH:  Well, I’ve known your work for years, and you always think you know the process of how an artist works.  And sometimes you’ve formed this impressionistic vision in your mind, but it’s not actually what happens.
EG:  Oh, I’d like to hear the impressionistic vision.

PH:  So first you put the paper down?
EG:  Hmm.  Go ahead.

PH:  And the next step is kind of hieroglyphic, as if you’re starting to write on the paper.
EG:  Actually, the paper is sometimes printed.

PH:  But how do you decide how to put the paper down?  Because in a way, that’s almost the most abstract part of your work.
EG:  Yeah, that’s sometimes the piece.  In a case like “Afro Mountain,” that is the piece.  Nothing else happened after I put the paper down.  All the printing was done before.

PH:  One thing I like about your work is that even though there’s a codified group of signs, it’s not literally repeated.  There are the eyes ...
EG:  It’s sort of pathetic, in a way.  I would think I could have had more of a system by now.

PH:  Well, no, I mean, that’s like allowing it to drift because of subjectivity, which a lot of people won’t do.
EG:  Yeah.

PH:  To me that’s the essence of making art; you do the same thing, but as you’re doing the same thing, it changes.
EG:  Right.

PH:  Do you agree?
EG:  It sounds interesting.  I don’t know that everybody does that.  But it seems to be what I’m doing right now.

PH:  I think it’s interesting how even if you set out to do the same thing, the psychological drift comes into it.
EG:  I think that would happen even if you didn’t set out to do the same thing.  It’s just more apparent.

PH:  So, first you put the paper down ...
EG:  I thought we passed that.

PH:  You put all the pieces of paper down, and then glue them?
EG:  It depends.  There’s really not a system.  That’s kind of embarrassing.

PH:  And you know what it’s going to look like when you glue them down?
EG:  Well, a piece like “Afro Mountain,” I made it in a print shop that was empty.  I was sneaking into the print shop at Harvard that no one ever uses.  I couldn’t bring my painting there, so I carried the pages around for a while, in a briefcase, and thought about how I would lay them out.

PH:  So is that kind of random, and then you play off it?
EG:  It’s like you’re building something, but not from a blueprint.  So you think you know what you’re going to get.  It’s like laying out subflooring without taking really good measurements.  So you get to the end and you’re kind of fitting things in.

PH:  The other thing is this relationship — the paper being the ground, and the paper as ephemeral, and your ruled paper as something that writing takes place on.  I think there’s poetics in that.
EG:  Hmm.  Yeah, and the meaning of the papers evolved as I kept making them.  They weren’t always a take on my skin, to me.  They were not, from the beginning.  The paintings were, but I didn’t ever really understand the paper to be literally skin.  I know that’s strange ...

PH:  No, I wouldn’t have thought ...
EG:  When I was first making them, they were always completely covered.  So the paper was really just a ground.  And now I don’t think it’s quite just a ground anymore. 

PH:  It’s not just paper.  It’s this ruled school paper usually.  So that’s kind of evocative.  I mean, you just went to the stationery store and picked that out?
EG:  That’s all I wanted to work with.  I mean, that material makes the work.  It’s sort of corny, but walking down the street I found a thrown away notebook, and it said, “We are a drug-free school. Have a nice day.”  I thought it was really funny.  I liked that it said, “Have a nice day.”  It was just sort of a nothing.

PH:  In child’s handwriting?
EG:  Well, yeah, but in perfect block handwriting.  So for me, using the children’s penmanship paper was a way to also deal with how that was about infantilizing language.  I mean, a lot of the minstrel playbooks, the songbooks, they’re like strange baby talk.  Even though it’s pornographic or something, and racist, it’s really not just in this fake dialect.  It’s also really infantile. 

PH:  And how would you analyze that sociologically?
EG:  How would I analyze what?  The infantalizing of black people in American culture?

PH:  Not the infantalizing in general, but the use of the rhyming. It’s as if the minstrel is ...
EG:  It’s almost like it’s this weird kind of primal site.  The minstrel show, for me, becomes this primal site.  I mean, I think all American comedy is in some way.  The most benign American comic fun is wrapped up in racial demarcations.

PH:  Benign?
EG:  Just like American comedy is really connected to race. 

PH:  But not necessarily in a destructive way?
EG:  Not necessarily, unless you think demarcation always is going to be destructive.  But it’s always connected to that.  Even the repetition in the way people would go to these minstrel shows — again and again and again.  And see the same thing over and over.  And there was that rip-roaring laughter that’s almost panicky and hysterical.  So I don’t know that it’s linked to childhood.  I do think the infantilization of both the actor and the audience fed some adult desires.

PH:  I’ve never actually asked you about the emergence of the minstrel show as this psychological site.  I can imagine your researching it, but how did you come to consider it a primal site?
EG:  The earlier work was a more explicit take on Sambo imagery.  It was more, like, being in New England and finding these strange objects in people’s houses.  I remember finding this Mammy doll that had a wooden body and a little nobby wooden head, and it struck me that she had no arms.  It just, to me, was an incredible thing.  And another one, I got this blood orange once, imported from Italy.  It was wrapped in a skin-like tissue, and printed on the tissue was this little Sambo head, he was very dark, of course, and the pinkness of his flesh just coming through was exactly the same color as the pinkness inside the blood orange.  As if you were devouring his fruit.  He was the fruit.

PH:  And you were drawn to these as images?
EG:  I was really interested in the fluidity of those images.  So I realized pretty quickly that I was more interested in the language around those images.  The language as a site.  It was like a real place between a body.  The language as a way to keep those images off our body.  But there was a split, generationally — and in some cases, in terms of race — in terms of acknowledging what the images were.  It seems like black people my age had an incredible language for what those images were, and the language was a way to deflect the image.  Whereas white people who had personal contact with a minstrel show or the minstrel tradition in some way ...

PH:  Even through media?
EG:  Even through TV.  They would act like they’d never seen it before.  That was really amazing to me.  That insistent denial.  So I became interested in that, and there was a slow development towards the minstrel show because it’s theater, it’s an attempt to embody language.  You know, in the mid-1800s, a lot of Irish people were minstrels.  They were the white entertainers who were minstrels.  And then after World War II, a lot of Jewish immigrants used it because of vaudeville, so it became really interesting to me.

PH:  And is this a site of racism? 
EG:  Of course, but it’s also about class.  The Astor Place riots were done in blackface.  Eric Lott has talked about the way white entertainers used blacking up to deal with class strictures, too.  Even in terms of Irish people, in the playbooks you can find a lot of slippage between the motherland being someplace in Ireland, being Africa.  So the same language that dehumanizes, and the same disembodiment - the lips and the eyes - as it becomes chaotically used by other immigrants, it can be kind of dangerous.  Everybody else has been able to pass through the doorway but the African, so it’s just momentary passage.  Even the way gay culture in the late ’70s and ’80s used blackness to identify itself as other.  Or even the way white adolescent boys during the heyday of hip hop used the black male body, MTV rap, to be a way to pose themselves as other from their dads.

PH:  Right.
EG:  That has incredible implications.  What does it mean that these young white boys can imagine a possible future embodied by black men?  And the imitation, and imitative poses ...

PH:  But the athletic black male body has become an American ideal.
EG:  But it always was.  It’s not become.  I think Jesse Owens was always ...

PH:  But wasn’t there ambivalence about it?
EG:  Well, there is now too.  Look at Dennis Rodman.  Sort of a freak show and, I mean, it’s still theater.  But I agree with you, it’s definitely a more mainstream ideal.

PH:  With children nowadays I see it all the time.
EG:  I don’t know how many people who identified with Chuck D when they were 14 ... how did they take that into their adulthood?  Or is it just a kind of language they use when they want to establish themselves as other, conveniently, from the system?  It’s a language they’re allowed to put on and put off.

PH:  So do you see the otherness of the African as unchangeable and there forever?
EG:  And there forever?  Well, we have all these mutations.  There’s an insistence on it being unchangeable, but the way someone like William Wells Brown used Clotel for the abolitionists — that sort of fantasy ...
PH:  You have to tell me about it.
EG:  It’s this strange, mulatto fantasy.  Basically the idea was that, to get white people to identify with the African body, it had to be yellow or something.  It had to be like them.  And Clotel was supposedly the daughter of Jefferson, of him and his mistress.  In this story, his brother gets custody of this woman and her children and basically sells them off.  And the kids pass as white.  Clotel has blonde hair and blue eyes.  And the abolitionists were really able to identify with the horrors of such a fair-skinned person on the market.  So the only way that white people could enter a black subject position was if they could see their own reflection. 

PH:  So the images from the minstrel show remain in the paintings, and they entered the paintings as a site of melancholy, of pain.  Can you verbalize what your psychic relationship is to it?
EG:  I can’t exactly, because they’re not.  I don’t know, they’re sort of goofy too.  In terms of my take on it, if there’s an idea, it’s that I was going to stick with this sign in terms of my own subjective maneuverings.  And with the idea that it’s still bound somehow by collective readings.

PH:  That’s what I do.
EG:  Oh, really?  Yeah. 

PH:  But you’re given to switch from a melancholy reading to a completely goofy, irreverent ...
EG:  Yeah, it’s not totally responsible in terms of that. 

PH:  There’s something I really want to get at, which is how the two things are conflated with language, especially the minstrel eyes and mouths — with seeing and speech.  These pictures become like letters, and you feel like they’re body parts that you read. 
EG:  Yeah.

PH:  It sounds like you don’t really think of it that way?
EG:  No, I do, but I don’t know that most people bother.  I mean, I’ll have these whole meanings to me, as I’m making it.  Like in “Host,” clustered at the top are these brownish lips, flesh lips and eyes and blonde ladies.  I mean, none of the things are static.  But people will just say, “Oh, those are the lips.”  But there will be lips or vaginas, or their meaning will change depending on their neighborhood.

PH:  You do have a gift for getting these images to transmute — the way the lips become either vaginal or sometimes like hot dogs.
EG:  There’s this desire to — especially when people have enough of a sense that, okay, this is somehow about race — there’s a sense of, “I better get it right.”  But that’s sometimes a stopping point of entering another person’s subjectivity.  So I really felt that there’s a desire to want things to be completely getable and knowable and ironic in a very comfortable way.

PH:  One thing that’s unique about your work is there’s a tension between the images of gestalt, overall reading, and then this linear reading that you can only get if you walk up to the painting and look at all the little figures.  And in a way, I see that as transgressive.  I would think that people would be much more comfortable with the gestalt reading.
EG:  Right.
PH:  It’s this getting-your-nose-up-to-the-surface reading, not only in terms of subject matter, but in the way of looking, that I think challenges people.  These two strongly different ways of looking or reading going on at the same time.
EG:  Just entering somebody else’s subject position can be a really radical thing.  Just to ask that.  I don’t think I should have to be revealing some sort of authentic, black point of view or something.  And in a way, just asking for a kind of intimate glance ...  I don’t think it’s very rational work.  So in a way it won’t be getable unless you bother to enter my subject position.  There are these codes, and unless you bother to read it, it’s going to just remain a kind of field. 

PH:  I think that’s so poignant for any artist, to try to ask for or achieve that.
EG:  In some ways it’s just a general egotistical request to ask that people engage the work before they know what they are seeing.  I think the work is so fractured that it can’t really be ironic exactly because irony, I think, assumes that there’s this getable whole.  If we can all go, ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge,’ then there’s an assumption that everything can be knowable to all people.  That’s kind of creepy to me. 

PH:  You know, I think one aspires to do multi-valent work, but it’s hard to get multi-valent readings.
EG:  I actually think that I’ve been lucky in some ways.  But I also think it’s a lucky time to be making this work.

PH:  Tell me why.
EG:  I think the art world has really changed incredibly in the past five years.  I don’t think it’s gotten better, I’m just saying, I think you can be a black artist and make work that’s sort of about nothing, in a way.  Or work that can be just sort of whimsical.  It feels like it doesn’t have to be heavy work.  That feels new.

PH:  There are so many artists who I feel became artists because it wasn’t an existential choice.  They just were good at drawing or something, and maybe weren’t good at other things, they went to art school and they became an artist.  And with your generation, what I’m seeing again are artists, and especially African-Americans who are becoming artists, I think, as an existential decision.  I mean, it’s easy to imagine that you could have become some kind of writer.
EG:  No, maybe ...  I think that’s true, but it was slow ...

PH:  An existential decision would have to be a slow decision, an ethical decision.
EG:  Hmm, well, no, no.  I think I know what you mean by ethical, but that word is so loaded.  It’s so complicated, Peter.  I mean, I think I would have been satisfied if I had just been writing, maybe.

PH:  But art became the site for what you wanted to say.
EG:  Yeah, and how that happened, I’m not exactly sure.  In some sort of perverted way it brought together some things for me.  When I went to Alaska and worked on a fishing boat there, I was really young.  I made a lot of money and I was really safe.  Nobody hurt me.  I had this incredible world that opened up to me, physically.  It was working with my hands, and it was kind of hustling too, in a way.  You know, convincing people they should get you, you should get something from somebody.  It was kind of like a confidence thing.

PH:  You’re referring to getting hired?
EG:  It was about getting hired, yeah. I remember thinking, “Why should someone hire you?”  I remember the whole negotiation.  And nobody messed with me because people identified with me or something.  I remember, I met an old man who was really settled there, who said, “Oh, you remind me of a girl I used to date.”  And I thought, “Does he know I’m black, and is he telling me he had a black girlfriend?”  I had no idea.  But I was able to make this web of protection.  It was like, a confidence.  And I don’t know if this makes any sense, but somehow going to art school is connected with that.  Or even the way I got my carpentry jobs — you would arrive on a site and convince people to hire you.  And convince people to treat you the way you wanted to be treated.  I mean, even if you have some civil rights legislature, that doesn’t really make people treat you right.  You have to make protections for yourself.  So it’s sort of a physical game, in a way.

PH:  It’s interesting, because you’re bringing up a lot of class issues that are inherent in being an artist.
EG:  Well, yeah, that’s a big deal.  I mean, my mother said, “Oh, for me, art is just this magical bridge I can’t really walk across.”  She’s always had a pride/resentment thing.  She’s really well-read, actually, but the idea of somebody in her family making art ...  And it’s also sort of a waste of time.

PH:  That’s one of the nice things about it.
EG:  Yeah.


© index magazineEllen Gallagher
Ellen Gallagher by Tina Barney, 1997
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