Ellen Gallagher: Murmur and Deluxe

Some 60 pictures-old advertisements from the magazines Our World, Sepia and Ebony-are in horizontal lines, framed on a white wall, and they are art.

Contemporary art seems to be something already made by prior artists, or in this case, advertisers-just changed, manipulated-and it’s called in publicity statements, “transformation.” Although this could just be laziness or a lack of creativity on the part of the artist, it’s effective in Ellen Gallagher’s work, Murmur and Deluxe, showcased in the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, from Feb. 12 to March 27.

The changes Gallagher makes to these 1930s to1970s advertisements exaggerate the inflated claims that advertisements so often make, i.e. “lose thirty pounds in thirty days!”, “maybe it’s Maybelline” that made that model so beautiful (or, sad to say, maybe it’s just good genes). The meanings and statements she makes about society and women are comically intelligent.

Gallagher seems to have some sort of obsession with the vanity women ascribe to themselves based upon the quality of their hair. We’ve all witnessed, or in my case, have been the one to cry, as we watch those locks come shimmying down the seat to lay useless on the floor of the hairdresser until the teenage employee sweeps it away.

In “Wish-Whish, Whisk,” three framed paper cutouts of an iguana like creature (but without legs) on paper circumscribe three different portraits which use a similar technique of black-faced women with different hair styles ranging from grotesque (the hair encircling their face) to the beautiful (it flows in the wind dramatically).

Gallagher is also interested in the other ways in which women frantically attempt to improve their appearance; she confronts the question, “why do we believe ads which claim to, with the help of their products, improve our appearance, help us get great looking friends to match our great looking selves, and improve basically at life all with one measly eight-dollar bottle of face wash?”

In the Bad Skin advertisement, the advertisers claim that their cream is “Advice for Bad Skin-externally caused.” The faces in the advertisement have been covered by Gallagher in a blue paint with their lips highlighted in bright red pout. The blurb below the outlandish claim which explains how the cream works has all the words whited out except for the letter o, then 00,000 women is shown until at the end it states a “money back guarantee”, ensured if the customer is unhappy with the results of the product.

Gallagher’s exhibit is a useful implementation of the common theme throughout contemporary artists of modifying existing media. Through her changes, the exaggerated claims of the advertisements appear absurd. She effectively makes a comment on the unbalanced priorities of society that endorse the marketing of products that will tell a customer that they will lose 100 pounds, just a pill a day.

By modifying the advertisements, Gallagher makes the viewer see the absurdity of such claims, or why we even think that thinness or beautiful, blonde hair is so important or so much better than what we have already, which is natural and complementary to who we are.

Melanie Klesse can be contacted at m.klesse@umiami.edu