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Ellen Gallagher
Ecstatic Draught of Fishes
21 May – 31 Jul 2021

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Gallagher’s process involves undoing and reforming trains of thought often over long periods of time and across linked bodies of works. This exhibition presents new large-scale paintings and watercolor works on paper by the artist, including a continuation of her Watery Ecstatic works (2001—ongoing) and a recent series of paintings Ecstatic Draught of Fishes begun in 2019.

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In the intricately variegated Ecstatic Draught of Fishes paintings, Gallagher investigates the parallels between the history of slavery, colonialism and belief systems, in relation to oceanographic natural history.

Besides the title, which spans different moments in art history through the course of the three distinct paintings it encompasses, Gallagher focuses our attention on the draught yet to yield.

The basis for the recent works lies in three historical paintings: ‘The Miraculous Draught of Fishes’ (1618–19), Peter Paul Rubens’ depiction of a miracle from Christ; ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ (1819) by Théodore Géricault, showing the aftermath of a shipwreck of colonists off the coast of today’s Mauritania; and J.M.W Turner’s ‘Slave Ship’ (1840), which illustrates the barbaric act of slaves being thrown overboard to relieve weight during a storm. These paintings seem to have been overlaid and atomized in Gallagher’s intense and delicate works. Myriad spots resembling eyes form shimmering, amoebic clouds on backgrounds of penmanship paper, while palladium-leaf caryatids proliferate.

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In a new group of works on paper from Gallagher’s Watery Ecstatic series, the artist employs oceanographic history, Black-Atlantis mythology, and ideas around colonial mapping to cultivate complex biomorphic forms. The most resounding influence of the new watercolors comes from the mappings of 17th-century Dutch artist Albert Eckhout, who travelled with the Dutch Royal Court in the 1630s to document their conquest of the prosperous sugarcane-producing region in the northeast of the Portuguese colony, Brazil. Gallagher’s watercolors probe and draw upon ‘commodity portraits’ of the African and Indigenous populations of Brazil that Eckhout produced as part of a project of imperial mapping intended to catalogue the local flora, fauna, people, and customs in the new territory.

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A work by Gallagher entitled ‘Paradise Shift’ (2020), which draws us down to the depths of the ocean floor, will also be on display. The artist combines paper and canvas that has been stretched and incised in striated areas. The penmanship paper support is awash with saturations of umber and clay hued pigments, creating a geographic timeline in which interlocking forms appear to mutate between figuration and abstraction, like agents in a musical composition coming together in an evolving continuum.

Carol Armstrong on ‘Ecstatic Draught of Fishes’

‘Since 2001, the series Watery Ecstatic, and now the new series of paintings, Ecstatic Draught of Fishes, which began in 2019, have been concerned with that mythic underwater ecosystem: the new octopus watercolor, which is part of the longer- standing series, belongs to that preoccupation. Within that context, the octopus is one of those organisms that, in its otherworldliness, straddles the boundary between scientific fact and fiction.’—Carol Armstrong, Professor of History of Art at Yale University

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About the artist

Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1965, Ellen Gallagher lives and works between Rotterdam, Netherlands and New York. Gallagher builds intricate, multi-layered works that pivot between the natural world, mythology and history. Her process involves undoing and reforming trains of thought often over long periods of time and across linked bodies of works.

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On view in London

The gallery is open to the public Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm. In order to share a safe and positive experience, we ask that you book a timed reservation and read our visitor guidelines in full before you arrive.

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All images: © Ellen Gallagher

Inquire about available works by Ellen Gallagher