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In Rhode Island, plumbing history’s depths with artist Ellen Gallagher

Ellen Gallagher's "Aquajujidsu," from 2017.
Ellen Gallagher's "Aquajujidsu," from 2017.© Ellen Gallagher. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

PROVIDENCE — What lurks beneath the waves of the cold, deep sea, the “tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin,” as Herman Melville once put it? We know so little, and Melville, in his time, even less, though he knew enough to meet it with fear and respect. “(O)ne forgets,” he wrote, “the tiger’s heart that pants beneath it.”

Those opaque depths leave room for boundless imagination; the surface, less so. Oceans have always carried freight, the byways of global trade for centuries. Freight can be emotional and actual, and perhaps nowhere more than in Rhode Island, the departure point for more than half the slaving vessels of a nascent, evolving America in the 17th and 18th centuries. To gaze from here at those waters is to stare deep into history at its most desolate, and to wonder what nightmares lie below.


The power of Ellen Gallagher’s work lies in those depths. Gallagher grew up in Providence, born in 1965, the year after the Civil Rights Act expanded, rights and protections for her father, a Black professional boxer, at least in theory. (Her mother was Irish-American and white.)

Gallagher’s grandmother on her father’s side had emigrated from Cape Verde, a historic way station for tens of thousands of enslaved Africans en route to the Caribbean or North America. Was it that personal history that drew Gallagher to the mythology of Drexciya, the Black Atlantis at the bottom of the sea? Maybe. There’s something as vast as mysterious the sea itself to the idea of it: A dark fantasy where pregnant slaves thrown overboard for insurance claims gave birth in the depths, where their children created an underwater utopia out of reach from the brutal world above. But I don’t think place and context can be overlooked, or overstated. In Rhode Island, the shadow of centuries of racial strife loomed over the civil rights era and beyond, and surely over Gallagher’s formative years. And the sea, heavy with tragedy and hope, was always close at hand and to mind.


One of Gallagher’s consistent motifs over years is her take on scrimshaw, the practice of carving images into whalebone created by New England sailors stuck for weeks at sea. They might have etched naked ladies, their ships, or the epic danger of the hunt; Gallagher carves into paper everything from marine life to the underwater fantasy realm so constant in her work. She’s the only artist I can think of who studied marine biology and oceanic microclimates in Maine, or worked on an Alaskan fishing trawler. The water, in its infinite dimensions of nature and culture, is her fluid foundation.

Ellen Gallagher's "Watery Ecstatic," from 2017.
Ellen Gallagher's "Watery Ecstatic," from 2017.Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. © Ellen Gallagher. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Gallagher left Providence to earn her undergraduate degree at Oberlin, returning to New England to study at Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (In 1995, Gallagher was still living in Boston when she was chosen for the Whitney Biennial; “Don’t you think it’s time to get out of Dodge?” curator Klaus Kertess said to her. So she moved to Provincetown, not New York. She now splits time between studios in New York and Rotterdam.)

The first time I saw Gallagher’s work was in Toronto, where her solo exhibition “Nu-Nile” opened in the summer of 2018. It spanned a couple of decades, from collage to painting to film to installation. Gallagher had always grappled with the legacies of modernism, challenging claims of aesthetic purity in the minimal and abstract motifs of artists like Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt with her own takes. Her suite of black canvases co-opted Malevich’s “Black Square,” from 1915, which some say was the first work of pure abstraction; Gallagher’s version, its glossy surface incised with small, fluid forms, was called “Negroes Battling in a Cave,” an abrupt reminder that modernism’s aesthetic revolution was the privilege of an exclusive club.


Ellen Gallagher's "Hydropoly Spores," from 2017.
Ellen Gallagher's "Hydropoly Spores," from 2017.Ernst Moritz/Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

But a new suite of paintings stuck with me like few things have. Presented together on an upper level, they played the same toggle between abstract art’s pretense of purity and the weight of history it denies. But the works transcended confrontation and critique for the transformative, a hopeful fantasy of the cycle of life. Jagged, dark forms float suspended on big canvases the same tone of aquamarine as Caribbean waters, luminous and warm. On the surface, they’re ravishing, seductive; but look to their depths. I began to read them as chapters: “Dew Breaker,” with spectral faces drifting into the deep, victims of the middle passage; “Whale Fall,” the meaty hunks of a carcass cascading to provide nourishment for those dwelling below. In “Hydropoly Spores,” life creeps and coalesces. In “Aquajujidsu,” the fragments of a Black face converge, as though surfacing — becoming whole, more of water than land. It’s a fantasy vision of Black liberation, demanding the evolutionary extreme of growing gills — which, given most of our history and even the events of the past week, seems less like fantasy and more like what it would actually take.


Ellen Gallagher's "Whale Fall," from 2017
Ellen Gallagher's "Whale Fall," from 2017Ernst Moritz/Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Viewed from the distance of Canada, Gallagher’s Drexciya meditations on canvas remained comfortably abstract despite the watery truths they seemed to hold. I could see them as broad condemnation, alongside Black utopic visions like Afrofuturism (for which escape is just as absolute — in its case, to the cosmos). It’s worth noting that the Drexciya fantasy was hatched in the 1990s by a Detroit house music duo of the same name; as adherents to Afrofuturism themselves, they even bought (or at least registered) a star for their escape.

Standing on these shores last week, looking out at the very waters over which those very slaving ships would have passed, I could see how critical the particulars of place are in the expression of the universal. In Providence, I walked around the campus of Brown University, named for the family of slavers whose first voyage ended in a revolt by its human cargo. (Undeterred, the Browns continued to trade in slaves, even after the practice was banned in Rhode Island.) The school has become a leader in reconciliation, commissioning an inquiry into slavery’s role in its founding and financial position as long ago as 2006. (On campus, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice offers a transparent view of its findings.) It has a lot to own up to, as does much of a region that now imagines itself a beacon of progressive thought.


It’s against this backdrop that Gallagher began to formulate her ideas of history, race, and what mysteries the ocean might hold. The sea is indifferent, here long before us, and destined to outlast us. In the meantime, we’ve skimmed generations of destruction along its surface. Hope, if there is any, is relegated to the depths.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.