Ellen Gallagher: Accidental Records at Hauser & Wirth

8.5 / Review

Ellen Gallagher: Accidental Records at Hauser & Wirth

By Colony Little January 30, 2018

Upon its death, the remains of a whale’s carcass descending to the ocean floor is called “whale fall,” and it is a process that nourishes a variety of species, sustaining entire ecosystems for decades. There is something oddly poetic about life thriving from the depths of death, and Ellen Gallagher explores the beauty of this juxtaposition in Accidental Records at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles. Her large-scale renderings of whale fall are placed on azure canvases that envelop the viewer in a placid sea. Paintings are punctuated by cutouts of abstracted sea creatures surrounded by a gridlike code of dots and dashes. Amid the meditative calm conveyed in the deceptively light works, the presence of code subtly pulses from the canvas, while the show’s introductory wall text beckons the viewer to explore beyond the surface. “Below this, the calcified sea…blackness has its brilliancy."

Accidental Records examines the horrors of the Middle Passage and transforms tragedy into a counter-narrative rooted in survival. In Ark (2014), Gallagher takes a 1980s print advertisement for Cutty Sark whisky and obscures portions of the text by cutting and pasting small round shapes onto a second canvas. The manipulated ad copy in the diptych slyly connects text and imagery to reveal the Crown’s early involvement in the slave trade. Among the eighteen paintings in the show, this piece is an important contextual bridge to Gallagher's whale fall paintings. During the middle passage, millions of African lives were lost at sea due to inhumane treatment. One of the most infamous stories was the Zong Massacre of 1781, in which a ship’s crew threw overboard 132 children, men, and pregnant women en route to Jamaica. The captain, desperate to cover up navigational and tactical errors, committed murder to claim insurance money, and the case became a catalyst for the social backlash that fueled the abolitionist movement. In the 1990s, the Zong Massacre became a macabre inspiration for a Detroit duo named Drexciya, whose music also influenced Gallagher’s work in the show.

In the liner notes of their 1997 techno/house album The Quest, Drexciya posits the sustainability of human life underwater: "A fetus in its mother’s womb is certainly alive in an aquatic environment. Is it possible that they could have given birth at sea to babies that never needed air?” From this hypothesis, Drexciya created a fantasy world of sea beings that were descendants of pregnant African women who drowned during the middle passage, and The Quest is the synth soundtrack to this Afrofuturistic underwater world. An unyielding belief in “hope" rests at the heart of Afrofuturism, where within the most dystopian environments, one’s survival is rooted in a history of triumph over tragedy. In Accidental Records, Ellen Gallagher gives us a visual guide to Drexciya's counter-narrative by presenting images of connected beings formed from souls lost at sea. In Hydropoly Spores (2017) and Dr. Blowfins (2017), Gallagher fuses Drexciya’s vision with whale fall, where in the middle of the ombré blue canvas, pairs of piercing eyes emerge from brilliant blackness and the floating remains of the unknown.

Ellen Gallagher: Accidental Records was on view at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles through January 28, 2018.

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