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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-sized paintings in portrait format.  And unlike previous work, they display a uniformity of format and a single-mindedness, with their exclusive use of horizontal bands painted in Scully’s signature way.  Apart from the titles, such as Landline Bloom or Landline Green Green, there’s an inevitable association with landscape because of the way the paintings are banded horizontally.   And the paint is frequently more loosely applied than usual, achieving an openness in the quality of the paintwork. It’s an openness with an atmospheric and emotional potential, which Scully exploits very effectively. One can’t help but think of painters in the history of landscape painting who have created a similarly powerful sense of mood.

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-grey, and with its chromatic complementarity just gives a value to the chroma of the greys, so that we can read their derivation from indigo and Payne’s grey, especially in the billowing brushwork of the second-to-bottom band.  

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-verdant, often choosing to paint over a red ground to take the chromatic toxicity out of it, as Constable so frequently did.  Here, Scully chooses not to do that, but still, he handles it with his usual painterly assuredness, setting the rich sap green against a thundercloud grey or the deep blue/viridian of a troubled sea.  Key to much of his articulation of colour is his well-tested technique of under-painting and over-painting wet into the tackiness of an not-yet-dry previous application.  It’s an effect that’s reminiscent of the vibrancy of Manet’s ébauche technique.  And while this provides the potential for creating richness and depth in the colour, it also provides the opportunity for working at different speeds without losing the freshness and the visceral nature of the paint and the surface it creates.

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-grey, lying, less troubled, at the top of the painting. And the pervading red ground glimpses through, between the different bands. The whole creates the effect of moving into a deep space, with a lighter tone looming out overhead.  It’s a very different effect from that of the architectural structures of Scully’s previous paintings.

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-up painting, almost airless, and this appears to be its only concession to some notion of landscape.  It has a kinship with Landline Blue Veined (2016) as it’s also a much more closed painting, and more typical of Scully’s palette of blacks, shades of red and greys.  But here there also seems to be the introduction of an atypical painting technique in which the applied paint appears to have been pulled off, possibly using a technique that used to be called ‘tonking’,(1) leaving an overall ripple effect in the paint, and flattening it.  Scully seems to have used this technique (and I hadn’t seen it before) to create a contrast in the surface between this band and the more loosely painted greys and reds above and below.

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.