Ellen Gallagher Oh! Susanna 1995

  • Not on view

Miniscule marks of racist caricature—such as blubber lips and popping eyeballs—pervade the sheets of lined penmanship paper that cover Gallagher's canvases. These shorthand signs look abstract from a distance, but on closer scrutiny the stock derogatory emblems of black minstrelsy become apparent. The title Oh!Susanna refers to Stephen Foster's 1848 American folk song of the same name, which originated from a slave lament about families torn apart. The song's racial element was erased when it became popular in the West, associated with the California Gold Rush. The artist explains, "A very specific loss became universal once race was removed." Gallagher's work disrupts the idea that race and identity are predetermined or fully fixed.Through repetitions and inversions she reintroduces taboo aspects of history to question whether core assumptions have changed.

Gallery label from Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making, 2007.
Oil, pencil, and paper on canvas
10 x 8' (304.8 x 243.8 cm)
Fractional and promised gift of Michael and Judy Ovitz
Object number
© 2020 Ellen Gallagher
Painting and Sculpture

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