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Sean Scully: The Art of the Stripe

Art New England, Dec/Jan 2008 


Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, New Hampshire
January 12 - March 9, 2008

By Craig Stockwell

Sean Scully paints stripes. His alternating color stripes are generally achieved through the layering of paint with a loose and physical hand. Underpainted layers of saturated and luminous colors penetrate through the muted surface colors. This extensive exhibit of over 24 large paintings also includes photographs by the artist and films about his work. Paintings included here range from the hard-edged geometric work that Scully, an Irishman then working in London, first produced in the 70s, through to the current Wall of Light paintings. Of particular note is the inclusion of the 14 painting cycle, Holly, a series done in honor and memory of his mother. 

Sean Scully admires the work of Giorgio Morandi. Morandi painted (essentially) the same still life over and over using an extremely subtle range of color and an abject/forlorn method of painting form. His work is not assertive. Scully is assertive. The work of Scully raises questions about the viability of a Morandi-like project in our time. Scully, in his work, is proposing that the project of painting within a very limited vocabulary, in his case stripes…in Morandi’s…representative still lifes, is the most likely path for painting to thrive within. He proposes that repetition within a given form is conducive to achieving a depth of inquiry. 

His paintings are large, his recent exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum, The Wall of Light, filled a very large space. There, he laid his gambit out fully and I think it did not succeed. The gambit was that within this relentless selection of massive paintings the variety and intelligence of the actual physical painting would provide the viewer with a deep variety and continuity of viewing experience that would carry a strong sense of its own necessity. I wished for it to work, but I came to lose interest and found myself oppressed by the corporate weight of it all. In the Hood context the wide scope of Scully’s work is featured and thus the exhibit succeeds. Scully is a determined painter with a dedicated sense of late-modernist possibility. He carries a belief in the hybrid possibility of individual voice and accomplishment within a conceptualist framework. This is gorgeous and intelligent painting by an artist with a convincing human argument for the viability of painting. 

Scully lives and works in an absurdly abundant time, his efforts at reticence are necessarily challenged by this abundance and the attractiveness of his work to a corporate sense of the function of abstract painting. At this moment one of the possible readings of contemporary art practice is that it is a matter of temperament who does what, although we tend to frame the arguments as a struggle for the moral high ground. Perhaps it is more an issue of what we, as individuals are temperamentally suited for as artistsÉto be a quiet researcher, a craftsman, an activist, a subversive. And of course, our temperament is formed, at least in part, by our context. Sean Scully appears to be painter of large and ambitious temperament attempting to re-enact an intelligent practice that he admires. It’s an interesting enactment to consider. And isn’t that the primary use of artists choices at this time, to consider their viability for our own interaction with our culture?