In Black and White

Mr. Terrific, The Man Who Kept Harlem Cool, and Doe, all from “Ellen Gallagher: DeLuxe, 2004/2005,” at the Whitney. Photographs Courtesy of Two Palms Press, New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art

In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison explored not only overt expressions of racism but also its more hidden, corrosive elements. African-Americans suffered from metaphysical wounds. They were “invisible,” seen not for who they were as individuals but for what they represented as a group. Blackness was a kind of impenetrable mask. Appearance was all. Historically, many African-Americans have tried to escape from this prison. Some whitened their skin or straightened their hair. Others took up the white-skirt profession of nursing. Still others made a fetish of blackness by wearing enormous Afros. Usually, however, one mask was merely being exchanged for another. The poster boy for such psychic wounds is, of course, Michael Jackson.

In a captivating small show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Ellen Gallagher is now exhibiting a portfolio of 60 prints, called “DeLuxe,” that makes serious sport of this effort to fashion a new appearance that can pass inspection. Gallagher searched through black magazines such as Sepia and Our World, mostly from the years before the civil-rights era, looking for material on the theme. Often, she picked advertisements. Ads from old magazines are always fascinating—usually, things look simpler and more innocent, which is an appealing illusion. Here, the proffered promises are often poignant. A skin whitener is an elixir: You will be “Made for Kisses,” with “The Lighter, Smoother Skin Men Adore.” A presentation of wigs allows you to pick a ready-made identity, from “cutie” and “supreme freedom” to “semi-Afro” and “curly gypsy.”

In the prints, Gallagher transforms the transformations, performing a kind of cultural intervention in order to break apart phony identities. Eyes represent a particular offense. In the world of the invisible man, the eyes are unseeing, in any serious sense, and Gallagher naturally erases them or turns them into slits. In one image, odd little curlicues hang down from the eye sockets. Gallagher plays elaborate games with hairdos, turning an Afro into a bizarre spiral or encasing an entire head in a kind of fantastic helmet. Sometimes, she will remove most of the text from an advertisement, leaving behind only the Os and Es. In a “learn practical nursing at home” ad, the blank-eyed figure is wearing a pair of dramatic high heels and the text is gone except for such reassuring words as “security” and “freedom.” The coupon to be cut out and mailed for more information contains what looks like a drawing of jellyfish.

In “DeLuxe,” the figures seem more like aliens than people. Strange, otherworldly growths appear on their bodies, and as the viewer’s eye moves across the series, the figures shift form with mercurial abandon. “DeLuxe” could be called political art, since it makes a point about racism and social identity, but the portfolio does not have the same mood as most contemporary work of this ilk. In particular, the art doesn’t have a hectoring, self-righteous tone. At times, the identity-chasing aliens even have a certain childlike charm, as if they’d been rummaging in a mother’s closet. Gallagher is playing, not just attacking; she’s a satirist, not an ideologue. Moreover, disgust with the body one has inherited is certainly not confined to African-Americans who lived before the civil-rights era. Anyone who has looked longingly at a silly ad, dreaming of becoming this or that Ken or Barbie, will enjoy browsing through this portfolio. And the genre of printmaking itself, steeped in ideas about process and the mechanics of change, echoes Gallagher’s theme. Working with Two Palms Press in New York, she has taken extraordinary technical pains with this series, making use of molds, for example, to give certain images a three-dimensional surface. The elaborate technical fuss and razzamatazz are entirely appropriate: The prints appear dressed up.

Ellen Gallagher: DeLuxe
Whitney Museum of American Art.
Through May 15.

In Black and White