A Retrospective Ranging From Black History To Underwater Fantasy At Tate Modern

Not all retrospectives at Tate Modern can be blockbusters like Lichtenstein. But this is no bad thing as we discovered in the subtle and intricate sculptures in the Saloua Chouchair exhibition. The latest artist to be afforded a look back at her career is Ellen Gallagher, an artist who’s well known across the Atlantic but less so on our shores.

She uses a wide variety of media from collage to film and her work can range from the highly political to the downright bizarre. The early rooms in the exhibition take a look back at black history with surreal artworks that give statues of Pharaohs a makeover so they resemble African Americans – a nod to how black roots can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians.

Her famous ‘yellow paintings’ employ a similar tack by accentuating features on adverts targeted at black men and women. However, these comic and over the top interpretations often detract from her political message about race and discrimination. The exception are her ‘black paintings’, where shapes form and coalesce yet remain unclear in the darkness – they are both disturbing and ominous.

Many of her semi-abstract works, including the films, seem lost between being either figurative or surreal and therefore any message within them tends to get washed out. We liked the abstract work made from strips of paper painted blue where shapes appear in the density of the work, but most of the other pieces didn’t spark a dialogue with us.

There are some impressive works here but they are vastly outnumbered by ones where the artist can’t quite figure out whether she wants to be abstract, surreal or making a political statement about race and history. It’s this lack of cohesion that ultimately results in a disappointing exhibition of work.

Ellen Gallagher: AxME is on at Tate Modern until 1 September. Tickets are £11 for adults and a joint ticket with Choucair is £15. Concessions available.

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