When Ellen met Francis
‘Francis Bacon | Ellen Gallagher’ is the first exhibition in an exciting new strand at Hatton Gallery premised on the visual synergies between different artists’ bodies of work.
Francis Bacon was once asked: “Do you accept that a young painter today might model himself on you?” He replied: “Yes, I do, but that’s normal. It’s always been like that. The young are influenced by their elders or by their predecessors.” Setting aside the sexist nature of the question (or could the interviewer not conceive of the notion that a female artist might model herself on Bacon) one of the UK’s greatest ever painters makes a valid point. People will always be inspired by what has gone before, yes, but it’s also interesting to view the work of disparate artists side by side to note what sort of dialogue can be established and see if any sparks fly.
Ellen Gallagher hasn’t declared any particular affinity with Francis Bacon (she’s more likely to reference the abstract work of Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin) but what this exhibition is attempting to do – the first in an exciting new strand of programming at Hatton Gallery which aims to provide an alternative to strictly art-historical approaches – is shed new light on each artist’s work.
The catalyst for the show is Francis Bacon’s piece ‘Study for Portrait No. 6’ (1956-7), one of most iconic works in the Hatton collection. Typical of Bacon’s mid-20thwork it shows an anonymous, suited figure (possibly taken from the newspaper or magazine cuttings Bacon collected) enclosed in a claustrophobic box-like space. His arms truncated, the man’s torso merges into his surroundings, heightening the sense of enclosure. This, and other oil paintings by one of the most important artists of the 20th century, will be presented alongside works by Ellen Gallagher, who is considered to be one of the most acclaimed contemporary artists to have emerged from North America since the mid-1990s.
Gallagher has been lauded for her gorgeously intricate and highly imaginative works that have been realised with a wealth of virtuoso detail and wit, bringing together imagery from myth, nature, art and social history to create complex works in a wide variety of media including painting, drawing, relief, college, print, sculpture, film and animation.Other influences on her work include everything from the Black Power movement to blackface minstrelsy, the free jazz of Sun Ra and the visual tropes of advertising targeted at African-Americans. Through these she has managed to create a vocabulary that reflects her complex engagement with history, identity, storytelling, society, race and gender.
The body of her work being presented at this show is ‘Morphia’ (2008-12), a series of double-sided drawings/colleges on tracing paper, in which faces, or almost-faces, are haunted by the designs behind them. A black bolus of matted hair is given aqueous fluidity by the blue watercolour and (lip-like) glue swirls behind it. In another, hair and an eye cut out of a magazine, are completed by the red-pink patch on the verso that suggest a pair of lips. One identity half-conceals and is half-shaped by another, just as the face we’ve been given and the face we desire make a third face: our own.
‘Francis Bacon | Ellen Gallagher’, 26 January-18 May, Hatton Gallery, Kings Road, Newcastle University, Newcastle. hattongallery.org.uk