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'Double Natural' (detail), Ellen Gallagher, 2002

The loop of sound at the gallery entrance accompanies a small square of film—‘Super Boo’—Bruce Lees bobbing about on the wall to a captivating, repetitive beat. The café’s buzzing, the bookshop’s full and Gallagher’s characters seem to float and dance behind it all, part of another world.

Ellen Gallagher is part Irish, part African American. Born in Providence, Rhode Island she grew up by the sea. She now lives in New York and Rotterdam. Her experience of life and place spans diverse tracts of cultural and geographical terrain. Gathering fragments from these places and pasts, she collects images, sorts them and sets them out for inspection. Sea life is cut into paper and faintly drawn as if newly discovered, lifted from the black invisibility of the deep, and copied. In contrast to their living counterparts, the papery scales curl up very white, some bits daubed with coloured ink. Curiously, in their bleached state, fertility is in the air—just look at the placenta-like blood red creature tucked in on the inside wall.

Two framed islands guard the entrance to the sea creature room. Pure white, they are hard to make out from a distance, the paper seeming blank. Close up, you can see that one is snipped and fashioned like lace—delicate, feminine, laboriously beautiful, reading like a quilt, with all the feminine strength and craft that implies. The other cutely plots names like Glamour Bob, Spiral, Luster, Modacrylic Model 336A, as sea parts right round its shores. Fashion labels. And upstairs, their provenance is made clear in ‘Double Natural’. This giant grid collages together ads from 1930s to 70s magazines such as Ebony. Overlaid with resin and finished with thick lumps of plasticine, it looks heavy, but its soul is light. Collections, contrasts, contradictions, characters, even the odd hamster—Gallagher blends these elements to transform the vintage models into gods.

Gallagher’s work is playful. Pleasure is instant. The plasticine hair cries out to be touched. The effect is pure pop. But if you want deep, you can dig for it and come up gold. The ads are black and white. The heads are black model stereotypes. Minstrel shows, hair culture, slavery, classical utopia and earthly oppression co-exist in her work. Sampling strands from all of that, her quick imagination weaves its own tale.

As well as the literal texture of plasticine and rubber, Gallagher also uses pattern to create textural rhythms in her work. In a dark room off the white sea creature room, four projectors clatter out 16mm films and set pattern into motion. ‘Kabuki Death Dance’ carves a shoal of angels onto slippery celluloid and choreographs them into a Busby Berkeley spiral. Like the other three reels in the room, and ‘Super Boo’ at the entrance, it’s short and addictive. Inspired by Drexcla, the undersea world populated by women and children who escaped the slave ships, it is visual poetry with an edge.

Cutting, slicing, moulding, building her drawings, the word she uses to describe even her films, Gallagher allows a tactile beauty into her work. Though some of the histories she refers to contains loss and death, her response is one of life. And in the wonderful names and legions of hidden faces, there is mystery.

On the surface everything is ordered and spare. Cool even. But Gallagher’s work is full of surprises. And the oddest thing. It triggered the memory of satisfaction I had as a child cutting scraps out of magazines—a simple, repetitive pleasure not to be underestimated in our hi-tech reality and one which Gallagher has kept close to her art.

Alice Bain is editor of Map