Gestural Painting and Visual Parallels
Francis Bacon and Heather Day’s Balance of Chaos and Control as a Reworking of Abstract Expressionist Practices
By: Dahlia Labatte
Heather Day furthers a specific part of the practice of gestural painting that was a large focus in the process of Francis Bacon: intention and the balance between control and chaos. Bacon’s subject was the figure and the portrait in a period that was dominated by the Abstract Expressionists and action painting. Despite his dislike for abstract art (Sylvester 2016, 106) Bacon used ideas that were and are a key part of abstract art, coming from the Abstract Expressionist movement. The artists’ use of the same techniques, from the Abstract Expressionist movement, is proven by their use by Heather Day, who in subject matter is closer to the practices of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The manifestation of Bacon and Day’s balance between control and chaos, shown in their experimentation of the application of their medium and visual parallels, is illustrated in Bacon’s Triptych – Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ (fig. 1) and Heather Day’s Convergence (fig. 2). Bacon’s piece is a triptych, the two side panels are visually similar and reflect one another, and draw attention to the center panel. Each panel has a figure that seems to play the part of a human form, but more abstracted and grotesque. Day’s piece features 2 pieces of canvas that have been stitched together to form the complete piece, which gives it the impression of a diptych without 2 separate canvases. Each half of the piece visually reflects the other, and are incredibly visually similar but not identical.
David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, is a record of Sylvester’s interviews of Bacon, in which they discuss his process and the various parts of it come together to create his final product, the philosophy behind his work, among other topics. An idea that comes up often is Bacon’s relationship with chance, “I want a very ordered image but I want it to come about by chance…I would like things to come easily, but you can’t order chance. This is the thing. Because if you could, you would only be imposing another type of illustration,” (Sylvester 2016, 62). Bacon’s workings with chance are inseparable from concepts and practices of action painting and gestural mark-making. This is visible in fig. 1, and most of his other works, in the figure of the piece. In the figure you can see the brushstrokes and layers or lack thereof that went into the figure. Through portraiture and figurative work Bacon employs abstract technique to mold a form that can appear sculptural, and like those in fig. 1, often not even resembling a human, ”There is a common effort in each of the arts to expand the expressive resources of the medium, not in order to express ideas and notions, but to express with greater immediacy sensations, the irreducible elements of experience.” (Greenberg 1940, 5). The way Bacon experiments with the application of his medium stems from ideas of intention and gesture painting, which he describes as chance; the idea that you can’t entirely control the medium, and experimenting with the level of control you have as the artist as an important part of his process. The practices Bacon uses in his works, despite the subject being figurative, come directly from Abstract Expressionism and gestural painting.
Heather Day’s Convergence (fig. 2) is not gestural at first glance, it is dominated by flowing shapes that are created by pools of diluted paint (Day 2020). On closer inspection there are splatters emerging out of what looks like several layers of pools that really could only be created by large gestural movements. The main idea of her process is to balance control and chaos; when working with large amounts of thin liquid paint it is impossible to completely control the medium and so part of it will always be left to chance. The intention behind her method of application is that part of the result will always be unknown and left to chance, until the paint dries down.
The two halves of the piece (fig. 2) are reflections of each other, similar to the left and right panels of fig. 1, but not identical because of her use of medium and her application process. Bacon and Day’s use of visual parallels contrasts with, and so emphasizes the relationship they have with chance and gestural mark-making that comes from Abstract Expressionist practices. This paper connects Day’s painting Convergence (fig. 2) with Bacon’s triptych (fig. 1) rather than an Abstract Expressionist piece because of her deliberate use of symmetry and the delicate balance between chance and order, “Embraces chance interaction and the way a mark evolves as the artist attempts to replicate it,” (Day). This idea is continuous in both Day and Bacon’s processes, and is illustrated and emphasized by the artists’ use of visual parallels in their respective pieces.
The entirety of Bacon’s process and his philosophy in the way he works is the aim to eliminate narrative and focus on the piece’s impact on the nervous system, “I’m just trying to make images as accurately off my nervous system as I can. I don’t even know what half of them mean. I’m not saying anything.” (Sylvester 2016, 94). Similar to Day’s work where the work’s goal is to make an impression on the viewer rather than create a narrative within the piece, “My work is an entry point for viewers to explore their own thoughts,” (Gray 2021). The raison d’être for their works is the process itself. Both Bacon and Day use gesture as a large part of their process, the exploration of mark-making is not the purpose of the work, this is what separates their connection from Abstract Expressionist practices, “the desire to exploit the break with imitative realism for a more powerful expressiveness” (Greenberg 1940, 9). In Day’s interview with Matrons and Mistresses and the videos Heather Day | In The Studio and Studio Visit with Heather Day the way she balances chance occurrence and gesture with deliberate and thoughtful mark-making is evident, she aims to “examine the boundaries of intention, exploring the opposing forces of control and chaos,” (Gray 2021). This is similar to the contrasts between Bacon’s figures and the backgrounds that are very linear and almost geometric (fig. 1). Bacon’s use of gestural painting is evident in the figure of the centre panel, particularly in the red paint. There is no definite way to know the way he created the large stroke, but regardless of that it is a large movement that really could have only been created by a large gesture. Like the splatters in Day’s work that were created by large gestural movements in the pool of paint already sitting on the canvas (Day 2017).
Heather Day’s piece Convergence (fig. 2) continues artistic practices started by Francis Bacon shown in his Triptych – Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, practices that are rooted in Abstract Expressionism, but expanded upon by both artists. This is shown through the use of visual parallels, gestural mark-making, the absence of narrative and the goals of the pieces, and their use of the delicate balance between control and chaos. Visual parallels in Bacon’s use of the triptych format and Day’s stitching of pieces of canvas, and both artists using parallel imagery in their works. The gestural mark-making that is a key part of both of their processes, and that the goals of their works are the impact they create, not the narrative embedded in the work. The most important part of their parallels that separate them from the Abstract Expressionists is their balance between control and chaos, that their use of gestural mark-making exists in a context within the piece that has been carefully considered.
Fig. 1, Bacon, Francis, “Triptych – Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Sweeney Agonistes’,” oil on canvas, 1967, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC., In Interviews with Francis Bacon, by David Sylvester
“About/CV.” Heather Day. Accessed March 5, 2023. https://heatherday.com/about-cv.
Gray, Eli. “Heather Day.” Matrons & Mistresses. Matrons & Mistresses, August 31, 2021. https://www.matronsandmistresses.com/articles/2020/11/25/heather-day.
Greenberg, Clement. “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” Partisan Review 7 no. 4 (1940).
Heather Day | In The Studio, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRcDHRJQ4IA&list=PLbqnmgOmO0LTu_NJM9U192uYfAfanrc-L&index=1.
Studio Visit with Heather Day, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93V-NwGbL2E&list=PLbqnmgOmO0LTu_NJM9U192uYfAfanrc-L&index=20.
Sylvester, David, and Francis Bacon. Interviews with Francis Bacon. Thames and Hudson, 2016.