Jolie Laide Gallery
By Christopher Davison
Through October 8, 2011
A mysterious gravity holds together the disparate body parts and strangely fragmented figures of artist James Gallagher. They repeat certain actions and poses over and over again as if silently mouthing the words to some secret message. Gallagher’s solo exhibition Everybody Else at Jolie Laide gallery is a unique opportunity to decipher some pieces of the puzzle.
The most abundant element in his work and, therefore, a good place to begin an investigation, is the human figures that populate Gallagher’s often sparse compositions. The viewer can approach them from two points of view. The first is to disregard their objectivity: they are but one more element of collaged paper. They represent the portion of the collage typically filled with the halftone dot of the printing process. Each composition consists of dark and light (halftone and non-halftone) shapes carefully balanced and fixed in place like pieces of inlaid wood or pietra dura. But this strictly formal critique does not connect closely enough to what appears to be Gallagher’s true interest with the work. The repeated appearance and centrality of his figures insinuate that they play an important role. In this exhibition there exist essentially three types of figures: the figure of power; the figure of vulnerability; and the figure of lust.
The figure of power radiates confidence and self-assurance through body language and style. However, these power-icons also seem cold and calculating. Not figures of inspiration but figures to be feared. Like all of Gallagher’s work, their identities have been whittled away leaving the viewer the participatory task of projecting identity upon them. They become figures of draconian authority from our own past; a stern teacher from elementary school, a mean neighbor we avoided, or perhaps a grandparent who always looked down upon us with a furrowed brow of disapproval. The figures of power intimidate us because they remind us of the individuals who intimidated us in flesh. As a viewer I wanted to move away from these images not because I tired of looking at them but because I felt, irrationally, like I was not welcome.
The two other types of figures, the figure of vulnerability and the figure of lust are most often represented in the nude. The vulnerable nudes are newborns who need protection from their stark environment. They evoke our humanity and accept our sympathetic eyes as some form of temporary concealment from the elements. Their pathetic situation elicits empathy. Both the figure of power and the figure of vulnerability engage us, though from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum – one rejects, the other accepts. The figures of lust however are too lost in their own activities to even notice us. They are a closed loop and we observe their amoebic movements like a scientist gazing into a Petri dish. The clinically sterile environments and the abstracted identities of the figures call to mind the photographic documentation of medical disorders more than any form of pornography. There is a tinge of discomfort in watching their bodies awkwardly smack and thump together, more flesh and meat than spirit.
One of the things that bind this array of imagery together is the tactile quality of the materials. The paper has an overwhelming presence. As I tracked my eye from one image to the next, I sensed the turning of page after page of a novel. If you are close enough to the unframed smaller works in the back of the gallery even the faint smell of aged paper is present. This cluster of unframed smaller pieces with their irregular edges, layers of collaged paper, and condensed figurative language offers some of the strongest and most concise examples of Gallagher’s work. They are spontaneous, intuitive and playful in their combinations – at once bold in their design and fragile in their materials. Their very installation is a collage complimenting the nature of the work. The framed works that share the room with this set appear tame in relation. They stand shoulder to shoulder in a neat row that is alien to the improvisational nature of the work itself. Beyond this imposed order, the sensorial connection to the materials has been severed. Behind the glass the work keeps to itself and the viewer loses access to these everyday materials that otherwise feel so familiar.
The two largest works in the gallery are prints glued to panel. They emulate the tactile quality of the smaller works but give a very different experience. They read well from a great distance and their figures assume a monumental quality. Their size indicates they have something more profound to tell us. But do they? They seem to be enlarged inkjet reproductions of smaller (12” x 10”) collages from 2010. As reproductions they are unable to achieve the qualities that are naturally evident in an original. The hand of the artist, the layering of materials in space, the singularity of the object and the sense of smell and touch are simulated rather than inherited. It is unclear if these experiments in reproduction are a commentary on the various forms of printed matter he mines for his sources or if this is merely scale for scale’s sake.
The layout of the exhibition offers another potential clue for reading the work. At the center of the gallery, acting as a hub connecting process with product, a well-worn worktable is covered with Gallagher’s material and tools. The table does not claim to be anything more than what it is: a working space and a signifier of the human aspect of the work. The artist is a person who sits in this chair, uses that glue, sifts through those images, and cuts or tears this piece of paper. All of these actions come with their own sounds, smells, and textures and further emphasize the fact that this is work you want to run your fingers along – work that attempts an intimate connection, through the use of very specific materials, with the viewer. There is a sense that someone could sit down at the table and try their hand at a collage. Like the work on the walls the table presents itself as something from some distant past; familiar to us but somehow lost in time.
There are other familiar aspects of the work as well. The choice of materials, time worn books and magazines, are sentimental objects that many people share a connection to. The black and white images stir a sense of longing for a forgotten time. Gallagher is a creative director for a marketing firm and I cannot help but wonder how much the psychological techniques of advertising, stimulating our subconscious urges, have on his work. Is there some strategy behind the materials and nostalgic imagery, engineered to manipulate our emotions? Using a medium that captures the frailty and transience of the human condition, Gallagher’s work advertises our basic human quest for power, sex, and acceptance. The glue behind the work is a psychological cocktail of emphatic sensorial connection through materials and process.
Christopher Davison is an artist who lives, works and teaches in Philadelphia. He received his MFA in 2006 from Tyler School of Art and is currently represented by Fred Torres Collaborations in New York andMark Moore Gallery in Los Angeles.