A fire erupted at the American artist Ellen Gallagher’s studio in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 2004. None of her paintings were damaged — she’d been installing them in a show in New York at the time — but she was left without a work space for some time. “I’d been making these massive Plasticine resin paintings. I was so into it. I’d just shown in the Venice Biennale, and I wasn’t ready to not make something ambitious,” she says. But the fire forced her to shift formats and work on a smaller scale. Those limiting conditions, somewhat ironically, led to her creating perhaps one of her best known bodies of work, “DeLuxe” (2004-5), a collection of 60 absurdist images composed of vintage clippings from African American magazines such as Ebony, Our World and Sepia. She made collages of the cutouts and turned them into photogravures, a printing process that smoothed the various clippings into one flat image. Then she repeated the process, adding new images atop the existing prints and creating a layered, rich composition. “I love the idea that you can both destroy and maintain the archive,” she says.

On a cold day in February, we sit in that same building, a postwar former tin storage facility. Gallagher’s studio is a sprawling space with large windows and a wooden floor, part of which she and a friend built themselves. Scattered around us are some of her artworks in progress; stacks of paper, brushes and books; and a plate of Dutch cookies. Gallagher moved to Rotterdam from the U.S. two decades ago, out of a desire to distance herself from the demands of the New York art scene. It isn’t much of a walking city, she tells me. The landscape is industrial, flattened out and lined with wide paths that are more suited for cycling than the kind of sauntering one might do in Amsterdam, but Gallagher, an avid biker, prefers Rotterdam’s “spooky,” sparse scenery. The building is divided into multiple studios, primarily shared among 10 core artists. “We’re a [co-op], and everybody has an equal vote,” she says, before adding that the building is very male, in contrast to her artistic community in New York: “I miss a woman’s culture.”

Gallagher was born in Providence, R. I., in 1965 to a working-class family. In her 20s, she worked as a carpenter in the Pacific Northwest and as a fisherman in Alaska; moving away from home had always appealed to her. “That was my right,” she says, “something that was part of making myself as a young adult.” Those early jobs, in which she worked with her hands and engaged with the natural world, eventually led her to pursue an artistic practice that includes painting, drawing, collage, film and animation. After graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she debuted on the New York scene in 1995 with abstract works that included references to ’90s hip-hop culture, ’50s Black hair ads and Jim Crow-era blackface visuals. In her early painting “Oh! Susanna” (1995), which is dense with bulging eyes and “Sambo lips,” the allusion to minstrel cartoons is frank and direct. But it and other works were often flatly interpreted as highlighting, rather than subverting, the signs and symbols of racism. “When I first appeared in the ’90s, the first people reviewing the work were older white men,” Gallagher says. “What I didn’t know as a younger artist was that the misreading was purposeful. Being locked into someone else’s lack of sight, lack of vision: that was the point.”

Over the course of 30 years, Gallagher has carefully attended to her own visual language, deploying processes such as collage, erasure, extraction, reconstruction and revision to create works that blend elements of history, humor and horror. Her recent solo exhibition, “All of No Man’s Land Is Ours,” at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, explored her longtime preoccupation with marine life, the Middle Passage and the transportation of enslaved people. Gallagher is particularly interested in the phenomenon of whale falls — whale carcasses that sink to the ocean bed — and their resemblance to sunken slave ships. In her canvas painting “Whale Falls” (2017), currently featured in the exhibition “Entangled Pasts at The Royal Academy in London, a backdrop of sea blues is haunted by the faint suggestion of body parts; the work is also a nod to another of the artist’s enduring interests, the Drexciya myth of an underwater Black civilization populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown overboard from slave ships.

A focal point of Gallagher’s Stedelijk show was an early painting by Paul Cézanne called “The Negro Scipio” (1867). It depicts the back of a Black man, the skin disfigured from whippings, and it inspired her own series of rubber-based black monochromatic paintings, made between 1998 and 1999. Gallagher also included “The Negro Scipio” in the show because of how it came to be known to the world: It was one of several then-overlooked Cézanne paintings that were sold to Claude Monet, in 1895, by the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who is thought to have been a person of color. For Gallagher, “it represents Black agency at the heart of modernism, as opposed to the story needing to be added in later.” The work’s subject and provenance confirm her idea of history as something that is elastic, alive and fused with Black myths. “There’s a futurity,” she tells me later, “waiting for us in the past.” Below, she answers T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.

What’s your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?

I need at least 8 hours of good sleep a night. It took me a long time to figure that out.

How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?

It depends on where I am in the process. If I’m beginning a new body of work or shifting something in the work, I tend to work regular hours; I’m in the studio by 10 a.m. and I leave by 7 p.m. As the work develops, it speeds up, but at the same time I need to remain in the studio for as long as possible. I don’t go home. It’s a heightened state. The decisions get more clear and circle through one another, often revealing that an earlier gesture which might have appeared random or unmoored was somehow necessary all along.

What’s the first piece of art you ever made?

I had just arrived on St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to meet a schooner. I was a day early. This was back in the mid-1980s. I must’ve only had enough money for my one-way ticket and a bit left over — but definitely not enough for any hotel stay. As dusk started to fall, I saw a really lovely firehouse overlooking a park by the bay. I went into the station and asked if I could have a bed for the night and, in return, I’d draw portraits of the company. The gentlemen graciously agreed and set me up right there next to the fire truck. I began to draw. They teased me, mercilessly at first, but I just focused and kept going, trying not to panic. And of course, I made flattering depictions, all muscley. Unfortunately, my sense of proportion was off and [at first] the bulging muscles only made the arms look skinnier, like Popeye. But I remained very serious and then I think the drawings got a bit better. The mood shifted, and everyone wanted a portrait.

What’s the worst studio you ever had?

In Boston, directly after graduating from art school, I shared a studio with [the playwright] David Mamet’s cook. She kept her dry-goods rack stored in the common space, an impressive floor-to-ceiling grid of glass jars and metal shelving. Her way of eating and preparing food was her art. Around the same time, my mother came to see the studio. She’d taken it upon herself to strap my childhood mattress to the roof of her powder blue Dodge Dart and drive over from Providence, R.I. At the back of the studio, just above our heads, was a wide wooden shelf. We swung the mattress up [to store it there] and it fit perfectly. That studio made two things painfully clear: “Artists are the high-class servants of the wealthy.” And, I could not go home.

What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?

When I was a student at the Skowhegan [residency program in Maine], an artist I greatly admired brought along a companion, an art-world entrepreneur. The artist beckoned his friend over to my studio shack, calling out to him: “Come see this! There’s someone making minstrel vaginas.” The entrepreneur ran into my space and proceeded to make a lot of noise. Anyway, it was decided on the spot. The painting was “Oh! Susanna.” The year was 1993. Entering 1994, the entrepreneur still hadn’t managed to send me a check that didn’t bounce. Finally, on the third or fourth attempt, at the end of 1994, he sent a check, for $900, that cashed.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

I always begin with the idea that I’m making art material rather than the work itself. Then there’s a merging of the material and the actual work. The unit of material becomes animate.

How do you know when you’re done?

At a certain point in the work, I can clearly see where it’s going, and I just know how to get there — [my previous gestures] and my initial ideas interact almost radioactively.

What music do you play when you’re making art?

For almost a year I’ve been obsessed with listening to [the pianist and composer] Jason Moran’s rearrangements of the early 20th-century composer and bandleader James Reese Europe’s compositions. In the poise and physic energy of Moran’s work, you can feel that he came up musically alongside Nas and the Roots. I like to mix that up with another artist I admire, the experimental violinist and singer Sudan Archives. Jason Moran and Sudan Archives would be the best supergroup! I imagine Sudan Archives playing her goje, a violin-esque string instrument from West Africa, in a Reese Europe composition.

When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?

In that firehouse on St. Thomas.

Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?

Less than 2 kilometers from my studio is the best fishmonger in the Netherlands: Schmidt Zeevis. Any fresher and the fish would be swimming. They also know that I love sea urchins and make sure to let me know when they get some in. I like to make a simple pasta dish with those; otherwise I enjoy them directly from their test [hard shell] with a spoon.

Are you bingeing any shows right now?

[Tonya Mosley’s] Fresh Air interview with the actor Jeffrey Wright. I’ve already listened to [the podcast episode] four times! It’s like a poem you can keep unpacking.

How often do you talk to other artists?

I’m part of a cooperative, and my partner is an artist, so I speak to artists every day. But I try to be economical in my approach [to those conversations], because we’re all so intertwined and have been for many years, and it’s good to keep things fresh. A few years ago, I took a position as a painting professor at Düsseldorf Academy, [an art school in Germany]. There’s a raw [current of] intimacy running between the artists there. It’s an incredible privilege to experience that sense of beginning [among artists at the start of their careers].

What do you usually wear when you work?

Big boots because I’m standing up for most of the day and I often draw with a scalpel.

If you have windows, what do they look out on?

The River Maas, in the direction of the North Sea. Currently, there’s an enormous ferry moored to the docks for asylum seekers that have become “Statushouders,” meaning they have been issued an ID card like the one I have. They are more or less temporarily living on that ferry, waiting for housing from the city.

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

Watch the swans drift by my windows and, in the summer, the neighborhood kids swimming and swinging off the docks. I never get tired of this view.

What are you reading?

“The Letters of Paul Cézanne,” edited by Alex Danchev [and published in 2013]. Apparently, Cézanne memorized Charles Baudelaire’s volume of poetry “Les Fleurs du Mal” (1857) and quoted from it often and extensively. This piqued my curiosity because [the curator] Denise Murrell’s research explores so many connections between that volume and Baudelaire’s longtime muse and lover, the [Haitian-born] dancer Jeanne Duval — painted by Manet in 1862 — and the burgeoning city-world being created in Paris at the time.

What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?

Garden at Issy” by Henri Matisse (1917).

What do you bulk buy with the most frequency?

Glue and pigment.

What embarrasses you?

How dirty my work process is — the shreds of glue, paint and paper that lead to my studio.

What’s the weirdest object in your studio?

An easel. I don’t know how it got in here.



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