Ellen Gallagher's ambitious project focuses on the life of symbols and signs. Having populated her universe with disembodied facial features that are loosely drawn from racist cariacture, Gallagher sends these allusions to the figure through an almost biological process of mutation. Meanings that were once static and embodied in the minstrel show's grotesque of blackface and buffoonery shift and are transformed in Gallagher's hands.
The life cycles of these ideograms are played out within an environment of high modernism; at times the structure of Gallagher's work manipulates the tropes of the minimalism of Agnes Martin or the Suprematism of Malevich. The scale and power of Nightlamp approximates the depth and all encompassing darkness of night. But this nocturne is possibly illuminated by a beacon. The similarity of form between the lighthouse lamp and the bow tie create a crack in a monolithic, reductive reading of Gallagher's forms. This fissure opens up the ideal of darkness to incorporate light, dissolving duality. Gallagher has utilized the bowtie to similar impact in other works, including Afro Mountain, Whitney Museum of American Art, Scout, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Deliriuos Hem, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"Subtle irritation is the essence of Gallagher's aesthetic strategy; rather than showing raucous abandon her minstrels are sophisticated performers in pantomime which pits knowledge of where they came from, how they are supposed to act and what they were meant to represent against the formal elegance and the decorous aestheticism of the context they infiltrate and command. And yet given that implicit dissonance the paintings are imbued with all the longing for the other, higher regions that avowedly aesthetic as opposed to tendentiously anti-aesthetic work can contain." (R. Storr, "A funny thing happened", Ellen Gallagher, 2001, p. 36)
For a number of years, Gallagher experimented with the form of the bow-tie, producing some of her most lauded work. Of these pieces, Afro Mountain, 1994 is in the collection of Whitney Museum of American Art; Scout, 1995 is in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim; and Delirious Hem, 1995 in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.