Sean Scully is having a well-deserved moment in the limelight. At 73, Scully is now one of the world’s foremost abstract artists, and he has an extraordinary ten museum exhibitions currently on show worldwide (including one at Yorkshire Sculpture Park), and that doesn’t even include this exhibition of recent work at Blain|Southern in London, his first with the gallery.
The show provides an interesting point of entry to the work of this Irish-born American-based painter. Split across two rooms, ‘Uninsideout’ asks us to focus on the musicality of Scully’s work; the artist is quoted as saying ‘one stripe is a note, many are a chord, all are played by hand.’ And it is those that are painted by hand that strike the strongest chord in this show.
The first room juxtaposes three large, bright, staccato works and four of the artist’s ‘Landline’ paintings with their soft, mutable light. The former all incorporate monochrome aluminium panels sprayed with horizontal lines like a musical stave, interjected by removable inserts hand-painted in contrasting colours. There is a certain energy and optimism to these canvases; their musicality is that of jazz, but I found myself unable to connect to their hard conjunctions of disparate parts. This syncopated quality is only exaggerated by their contrast with the lyrical ‘Landline’ paintings, pulsating surges of green, blue and ochre, punctuated by tiny flecks of light, emulating a fading view of the horizon. In ‘Breath’ (2017), the brushmarks suggest the rhythm of the body and the blustery blow of the wind, the natural sighing of water. In ‘Near Blue’ (2018), nocturnal associations abound: the twilight of Whistler’s meditations on the Thames, the spiritual poetry of Etel Adnan and the roughness of Turner. If the larger canvases evoke jazz, these paintings are a cello sonata: raw, murky and utterly absorbing.
Downstairs the works are smaller and the layers of associations continue in hushed shades of Morandian pastel. ‘Doric 11.30.17’ (2017), conveys the texture of marble, smooth from repeated touch - there is a stillness and gravity to these pastels which evokes a sense of history and art history. Indeed, Scully has said that their palette was inspired by Picasso’s ‘Harlequin’ paintings, distilling those melancholic canvases into abstract form. A hand-written letter in a vitrine describes how the artist sees the contrasting panels inserted in the canvases upstairs as representing a metaphor for migration. The comparison may not be immediately discernible, but it is representative of the multiple layers of meaning that Scully builds up: his work is so heavily referential, so rich with emotion and association, that really it is anything but abstract.
Upstairs in the lobby, where a pile of aluminium blocks sprayed in bright colours are stacked like Lego or building blocks over three metres high, this lusciousness has been lost, and Scully’s hand again feels jarringly absent. It’s an odd intro and outro to an exhibition which in places is positively swimming in sensation - in the swelling crescendos and sublime melodies of human experience.