Francis Bacon, Study of a Baboon, 1953, Oil on canvas, 6′ 6 1/8 x 54 1/8 inches
This painting, with its strong horizontals, verticals and indeterminate central smudge, does what all great paintings should do: it succeeds on a formal level, lending visual satisfaction that then reverberates in a transformative way to external references far beyond the scope of its construction. A basic narrative of sorts, that of a captive animal, is asserted and readily opens up beyond simple representation to a world of external associations. I think of Milton, Spielberg, Bradbury, Goya, Kristeva, Matisse, Foucault, Ridley Scott, Sontag and Darwin, to name just a few: artists, writers and filmmakers who create an experience generous to those inclined toward intellectual analysis as well as emotional sensation.
“Study of a Baboon”, like many of Bacon’s paintings, utilizes an “enclosure” in relationship to a central figure. His enclosure strategy suggests limits both literal and psychological. In “Baboon,” the enclosure appears to be a chain link fence running directly from one side of the painting to the other. By virtue of uncomfortable overlapping and simultaneous stridency this fence creates a tension in relationship to the subject. Does the fence trap the animal or does it in fact allow for escape? Is its symbolic power to restrain more functionally paralyzing than its actual architecture? After all, this barrier seems not to rest on the ground but in an in-between space: near and far, halfway up and halfway down.
Regarding the Other in horror and finding that Other in myself, it’s impossible to look at “Study of a Baboon” and not be sucked into a vortex of abjection and a struggle for empathy. This painting is fully located in the references and influences of its time – 20th Century Abstraction in conversation with the technology and uses of photography – while simultaneously evincing both a more ancient and post-current sensibility. It can be read as a collision between identity and technology, both personal and political. Here is a creature laid bare, on public display, while isolated in a stark and lonely landscape struggling between the safety of inscribed space and a theatrical need to shriek outward for acknowledgment. Bacon’s representation of this noise poses a question for the constant present: Kill, Eat, Screw…Pause, Post, Repeat?
Elizabeth Neel, Parallel Evolution, 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 79 x 64 inches