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Sean Scully at Timothy Taylor Gallery, Mayfair, London
2 November to 17 December 2016
A review by John Stephens
He’s a big man, Sean Scully; I met him at the private view of his extensive show during the Venice Biennale in 2015. Stating the obvious, the paintings are big too, occupying a lot of wall space; the product of such a man, with the paint larded on in big gestural strokes. But, notwithstanding their size and their exclusive focus on the stripe, the paintings are big in ambition and he’s an artist who has established an enormous stature as a protagonist of modernist abstraction. Even the smaller paintings, on aluminium or copper panels, have a sense of grandeur about them, and I’d say he owes his success over the decades since the 70s not only to his deft and confident handling of paint but also to his understanding, not just of modernist abstraction but of the history of Western painting.
The use of typical modernist compositional devices such as the stripe and the implicit grid give him scope to demonstrate that virtuosity. Often working in layers, wet on wet, he paints in a way that might be seen as reminiscent of Manet’s technique of not waiting for the paint to dry before the next layer is applied. And, like Manet, he uses it to particular effect, giving a powerful presence to his paintings with a palette that seems to defy description. And in making that connection I’m alluding to Scully’s broader connection to the history of painting, for often his palette and his understanding of paint handling is reminiscent not just of Manet but of Goya, Courbet, Nolde and others.
With their edificial quality, his paintings have an undoubted sense of the metropolitan
about them. They allude in their abstraction to city architecture, the immanence
of its surfaces and closeness of its facades. They seem to invoke the way we experience
the city; its noise, movement, pattern, and as a stage for incident. Such qualities
have been a consistent feature of Scully’s work, at least until the more recent paintings
at Timothy Taylor. This show consists of six equally-
Such a link is perhaps best sensed in Landline Darkness (2015), a painting that reminded
me of Giorgione’s Tempest, with its palette suggesting the menace of an impending
storm. There’s also something about the brushwork that seems to allow the light
through, a ruddy light that comes at the end of the day. Red makes its appearance
in chinks between the bands of varying tones of blue-
Landline Darkness (2015), oil on linen
Contrast this with the more joyous verdancy of Landline Green Green, a painting that
departs significantly from Scully’s usual sombre palette. And, despite green being
the colour of nature, I think most painters will admit to the difficulty of handling
green without it becoming a little sickly or over-
Landline Green Green (2015), oil on aluminium
Landline Lost Land (2016) is a painting that looks as if it was resolved quickly;
the history of its making is more overtly in evidence than in Landline Green Green.
Also painted over a red ground, the brushwork seems a lot faster, particularly in
the lower part of the painting, with a smoky grey band loosely brushed over the red,
giving a sense of depth and atmosphere rather like cloud close to a dark sea horizon.
Above it sits a heavy band of black – dense, creating a separation between itself
and a more airy grey – and then a lighter but more opaque blue-
Landline Lost Land (2016), oil on aluminium
I find it remarkable that within this abstract idiom Scully has been able to create these different moods and spatial readings, a feat achieved by only a few abstractionists such as Rothko.
As I spent time with the paintings, I had to remind myself that these were abstract
paintings with all the intellectual demands of abstraction that Scully has mastered
so well over the years, creating innovative and fresh paintings. And these are not
landscape paintings, although the titles push one to that kind of reading. It’s
a reading that is much more ambivalent in Landline Red Veined (2016), which creates
a deep foreboding space of luscious signature painting with derivatives of Prussian
blue, set against flatter, stiller bands of indigo, and that dark shade of red that
you get from mixing it with black. It’s a much more closed-
Landline Blue Veined (2016), oil on linen
Landline Red Veined (2016), oil on aluminium
Although this show marks something of a departure from what I have alluded to as typically the architectural quality to Scully’s work, it does demonstrate how, within his chosen idiom and painterly language, he continues to demonstrate a vibrant and inventive virtuosity alongside a powerful visual intelligence. Although small by comparison with his Venice show of 2015, this was the show of a real master of his art, an artist of enormous stature.
(1) So named after the Slade professor, the painter Henry Tonks, who frequently used to rub down pieces of newspaper on areas of applied paint and then pull it off to remove excess paint.
Photographs courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery
Sean Scully, ‘Horizon’ installation shot. Photo courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery.