Sean Scully: Works from the 1980s

Sean Scully, Without, 1988

Sean Scully, Without, 1988

Exhibition: Sean Scully: Works from the 1980s
Venue: Leeds Art Gallery
Running: Until 8 August

Few things bug me more than bad grammar.

I have experienced it a lot this week, in several unexpected places, including a glossy-cool keep fit magazine in the doctor’s waiting room and, alas, at Leeds Art Gallery. You would assume that such a cutting-edge gallery, housing an airy, expansive library, an eclectic range of exhibitions and, of course, a swish café over-filled with sumptuous, obesity-inducing delights, would take time out to consider the shoddy editing of its descriptive plaques and blurbs, which litter the gallery with their ostentatious ignorance.

So, my morning at the gallery started off badly. This was my first trip there and such misdemeanours disappointed me. Not that the other, aforementioned, little elements (café and general décor) didn’t more than make up for it.

And, also, the current Sean Scully exhibition. The abstract painter’s work from such a crucial stage in his career has been carefully and beautifully curated in the gallery’s ground floor rooms, providing the viewer with an enchanting explosion of colour as soon as one enters the building’s doors. But the colourful enticement of the exhibition’s façade is deceiving: a deeper consideration of Scully’s work reveals a powerful sub-narrative of isolation and dislocation.

Scully’s collection of panelled oils on canvas demonstrates his scrupulous application of layers upon layers of paint and the intricacy of developing colour, space and texture. His work takes obvious inspiration from a variety of cultures, as his Irish-American roots enigmatically combine with his experiences from Australian and African cultures.

Bold pieces such as ‘Outback’ scream with an intense depiction of dehydration and heat. ‘Outback’ was created with only an ‘idea’ of Australia in Scully’s head, before he ever went there. The name of the piece itself connotes the implications of stereotyping nationality and culture, and invites the viewer to develop their own relationship with the oil on linen, questioning their own ideas about place and expectations. The peculiarity of each piece is heightened by the development of the canvas. The emanating panels create an uncanny suggestion of movement, which is different depending on the individual perspective of the viewer.

It is easy to see where Scully finds inspiration. As one of the leading abstract painters working today, Scully settled in New York in 1975 and now divides his time between New York, Barcelona and Munich. His work from the 1980s is characterised by a more emphatic and physical quality. “I liked the idea of looking at a painting that you could not look at just from the front but had to move around,” Scully says.

And his breathing, pulsating work certainly achieves this desired physicality throughout. ‘Arrest’ is a wonderfully hostile piece, packed with Scully’s imposing stripe motif which literally manages to ‘arrest’ the viewer with its paradox of bigness and claustrophobia.

‘Any Questions’ fulfils Scully well-known 80s’ vision of intensified colour and the subsequent evocation of solemn and sinister feelings. The layering of the piece creates an unresolved contrast, a fractured vision of a society and culture that the painter is somehow familiar with, yet alienated from. Such themes create a powerful undercurrent in the exhibition, combining an undeniable sense of tenderness with a crucial air of tension.

‘Study for Adoration’ once again has a name which represents it all. But it is hard to experience the full effect of Scully’s vision – one of a desperation to find that elusive tenderness and humility, one of society’s clinicalisation and commercialisation of intimacy – without seeing it for yourself. The piece presents playful colours and interlinks blocks that seem to be sharing a kiss; but this small watercolour is searching for something lost that perhaps cannot be found.

The apex of the exhibition is Scully’s monolithic ‘Without’, which succeeds in fusing of all of his themes into one simple, yet deeply conflicting piece. It is at once comforting, open, relaxed – yet troubling and uncertain. Scully sees himself outside of contemporary trends, hence the off-centre, diagonally-striped box in the body of the piece – which represents the artist – demonstrates a figure removed yet encased within the history of art. He is separate, yet assimilated into the culture.

The message and the composition is effortless and unpretentious, yet striking and confident. Whilst their grammar may upset me a tad, Leeds Art Gallery’s choice of exhibitions will keep me coming.

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