The exhibition at the Hatton Gallery is centred on the parallels between Francis Bacon’s luminous portraits of twisted, grimacing faces, and Ellen Gallagher’s modernist-style depictions of marine biological phenomena, which offer a multi-disciplinary commentary on race.
The two artists are connected through their morphing of the familiar into unsettling, and at times barely recognisable, shapes. Both artists’ work is texturally complex, with Bacon’s thick layering of oil paint, alongside more elusive, wispy lines, acting as an interesting companion to Gallagher’s strong lines and multi-media backgrounds. Bacon’s Study for a Portrait (1952) shows a pale screaming man on a shadowy background, his lapel extending into a cage-like construction around his head, suggesting that his identity is constraining him. Where the density of the dark backgrounds in Bacon’s work establishes a claustrophobic element to his painting, the lighter, almost skin-like transparency of the surfaces Gallagher works with are more calming, despite the gritty mark making techniques she adopts. That Gallagher works on both sides of her chosen material, creating ghostlike memories of the work on the primary side, reflects this transparency, simultaneously resulting in illusions produced through her interaction with the marks left behind by the main work.
Bacon’s work establishes a claustrophobic element to his painting, the lighter, almost skin-like transparency of the surfaces Gallagher works with are more calming, despite the gritty mark making techniques she adopts
Gallagher’s experimentation with material memory to produce something new, yet familiar, is most apparent in Morphia (2008-2012), her painting of several hearts depicted through different mediums, which features several detailed drawings of ears on the reverse side of the work, the ears nestled into the stains left by the primary work on the other side of the sheet.
Where Gallagher’s treatment of identity is concerned with ideas relating to race, Bacon’s work is clearly influenced by the atrocities of wartime. Disfigured and warped exclamatory faces scream and wince from large canvases. Apparently influenced by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Soviet silent film Battleship Potemkin, these distressed men are unsettling to look at but equally compelling thanks to Bacon’s distinctive spirited style, which evokes the memory of movement in each stroke.
It is definitely worth visiting the exhibition, which is not only free, but also offers an unusual and moving narrative through its conflation of two distinctive, yet surprisingly similar, deservedly well-known artists.