Francis Bacon’s work is most notable for its pure emotion and raw confrontation. It is fitting, then, that the Hatton Gallery has chosen his celebrated ‘Study for Portrait VI’ (1956-57) as the stimulus for their Francis Bacon | Ellen Gallagher exhibition. It constitutes the visceral, palpitating heart in a new strand of programming that aims to provoke synergism in the Hatton collection. To open proceedings, Bacon’s dark, intense oil paintings are juxtaposed with the strikingly fragile paper works of Gallagher.
From start to finish, the exhibition evokes an uncomfortable feeling. The white washed walls, lack of windows and bright white light shine on to Bacon’s claustrophobic creations and Gallagher’s nervously delicate paper pieces. ‘Study for Portrait VI’ is the first work to anxiously greet the viewer, and the entrapment of the figure in the painting, between narrow walls and a low ceiling, mirrors the large black metal structures that frame Gallagher’s ‘Morphia’ (2008-12) series. These large structures are considerably higher than the eye level at which they are met, fortifying an overarching sense of claustrophobia as one moves amongst the consternation of Bacon’s paintings and the metal structures that buttress Gallagher’s ephemeral collection. This sentiment is reinforced by ‘Figure Turning’ (1959-62), a figurative examination of contorting bodies that follows the viewer’s circular and twisting route through the exhibition.
The uneasy and somewhat jarring presence of the works stimulates the human psyche, opening hearts and minds to the emotional and psychological energy imbued within Bacon and Gallagher’s work. The clarity of the gaping mouth in ‘Head VI’ (Bacon, 1949) is unnerving as it bawls against isolation, imprisonment and erasure. Gallagher’s beautiful, gossamer creations are comparable to the ink blot shapes used in the Rorschach test, and elicit similarly incongruous thoughts. The intriguing detail of her minutely precise cut outs, textures and even the invisible thread holding the works to the structures generate a conversation with the indefinite lines, surfaces and figures in Bacon’s work, creating a tension in the space that adds to the apprehensive atmosphere.
Both artists address the profound feelings of those that endure political, social or/and cultural upheaval. Whether that is the start of World War II for Bacon or the plight of African Americans for Gallagher, both artists manage to capture a societal angst and articulate it with the intimate vulnerability of the personal. Despite the discomfort of the viewing experience, these complicated bodies of work translate together into an environment and time that is, arguably, more socially and politically aware. The unification of this work creates a reconciliatory space to confront perennial demons, destructive legacies and the personal battles that none should fight alone. Francis Bacon | Ellen Gallagher is a challenging and unsettling exhibition, one that – whether you like it or not – you will find yourself consciously, and subconsciously, returning to time and again.
Francis Bacon | Ellen Gallagher, Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, 26 January – 18 May 2019.
Michaela Hall is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.