Ellen Gallagher, fat ladies and Pan sex with goat: my week of London kulcher


In the cultural whirl that’s been my life this past week, I’ve seen not only the sold-out sexily titled Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition (on until 29 September), I also caught Ice Age Art now in its final weeks: both at the British Museum. Some of the ice-age artefacts go back 31,000 years and, as the curators blast out from the posters, it does indeed mark the arrival of the modern mind.

Female forms abound. Closer to Beryl Cook than Vogue, them were the days when being voluptuous (or as we called it in Hackney, “podgy”) made you an object of beauty and the muse of artists. I wonder if those cavemen slept with their models.

The funniest exhibit to have survived the volcanic wrath of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 is the statue of Pan shagging a goat — a garden ornament, it is believed, and certainly one I’d have frightening the squirrels in my back yard any day. It’s a nanny, not a male goat the god of the wild is penetrating, so, hey, at least Pan’s not GAY, thus preserving some decorum for the elderly ladies and school parties clogging up the aisles. However, I bet she’s under age, thereby opening up another can of net-curtainland anxieties.

But she looks happy enough, and Pan has the manners to take her missionary stylee rather than doggy, so he’s showing respect and not a little affection in the way he’s playing with her beard. If a guy tugs fondly at your facial hair while making sweet lurve instead of demanding electrolysis, you know you’re in with a second date. Up close enough for my breath to steam up the glass case, the wickedness in his smile is achieved with such subtlety that I could swear he winked at me.


At Tate Modern, I did one last circuit of the Lichtenstein on its last day, quite liked the Saloua Raouda Choucair but fell head over heels in love with Ellen Gallagher who I’d never even heard of before.

Motifs of boggle eyes and big grinning thick-lipped mouths run through her early work and are immediate clues as to her identity as a mixed-race black woman working in the US. She’s funny, beautiful and political so that’s my fandom sewn up.

Three vast canvasses made up of hundreds of original mid-20th century newsprint magazine adverts targeting American black people sport new hairdos courtesy of the artist made out of bright yellow plasticene in an amusing and imaginative series of ludicrous formations that aren’t half as mad as the neuroses those magazines were feeding.

One of my favourite pictures, Abu Simbel, is a mucked around photogravure of the three giant statues of pharoahs sitting outside one of the pyramids. Again, thick minstrel lips, broad noses and boggle eyes are stuck on the pharoahs’ faces. Heads of murdered black men tumble in a heap at the base, two nurses smile and three tiny men in suits point feebly at a flying saucer made of yellow plasticene, turquoise fun-fur and spangles shooting its death rays.

Those nurses are referenced throughout Gallagher’s earlier work but it wasn’t until I read the notes for another big canvas and my overall favourite, An Experiment of Unusual Opportunity (2008), that I realised the significance.

The experiment referred to is the notorious Tuskegee experiment where hundreds of poor black men were deliberately infected with syphylis and observed over 40 years from 1932 with no medical treatment even when penicillin was found to be a cure. Nurse Eunice Rivers was the trusted intermediary between the men and an insane medical establishment.

This work is an abstract, like several other of the 100 or so works on show, made of hundreds of paper strips soaked in blue ink to varying intensities so that the whole surface ripples, and contrasted with  oranges, ochres and umbers. It is the most beautiful thing to look at yet represents one of the ugliest events in modern American history. The reproductions don’t do it justice so do see the real deal.

There’s a ton more from Gallagher in the huge AxME restrospective, with her tendrilly marine drawings most notable. Don’t miss it.

Coming up, Luke Bedford and the London Sinfonietta, and David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face at London’s new Park Theatre.

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