At the age of 73, with a career spanning six decades, Sean Scully shows no sign of slowing down. He has no fewer than 18 solo exhibitions currently at museums and institutions around the world, most notably at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, the Walker Gallery in Liverpool and at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Now comes his first solo show, Uninsideout, at London’s BlainSouthern gallery in which he’s exhibiting 18 new or nearly new works including a group of his well-known Landline series.
Scully is an admired abstract painter and sculptor who draws on such European traditions as minimalism and surrealism, as well as American abstract expressionism. His signature is for monumental abstract paintings dominated by stripes and blocks of layered colour.
His work is full of connotation and metaphor, and above all, enjoys a sense of what he calls “breathing rhythm”. The geometric patterns he uses creates this background rhythm leaving him the space to implant pictorial ideas. He creates both harmony and discord through his hues and tones.
His Landline paintings are his most tactile and it’s this quality, together with an energetic feel, which he believes distinguishes his work from such as Mark Rothko. “These paintings are connected with my ideas of landscape and in that sense are deeply romantic”, he says as he walks around the exhibition.
With different colours expressing different moods, his Landline paintings are representations of where the land, sea and sky all meet. The edges of his lines are all-important. They reflect the ever-changing horizons set against the unpredictable rhythm of the ocean. There’s a harmony, a unity with no vertical lines.
The Landline works are painted on metal – aluminium or copper. This is a throwback to Scully’s printing days when he began working with typesetting as a 15-year-old, becoming well-versed with ink and metal. Whereas canvas and linen might be good for layering, it tends to absorb gesture, something metal does not. This means that he can make quick, sweeping movements more easily, thus better capturing the implicit energy.
As a counterpoint to the harmony of Landlines are the works Scully describes as “not easy to love”. When he studied at Newcastle University in the late 1960s, he was interested in utilitarian and proletarian materials including the spray gun that’s associated with street art, protest and political activism. The legacy is still there in the monochrome pattern that features in many of his new works and give them an echo of current political turbulence.
He has refined a process begun in the ‘60s in which he creates insets, panels in a picture that can be removed and interchanged with panels in other pictures to create a sense of discord. “These are made with a machine which opens up another possibility of pulling things around and pulling things out of context, painting things in one place and moving them to another place which brings up associations of migration, context and so forth – very contemporary political issues that we all know about in Europe.”
Sean Scully knows something of migration. He grew up in London to Irish parents and was versed in Irish music and culture. He played in a rock ’n’ roll band and ran a blues club and appreciated the music’s ability to transcend divisions of language, race, class and politics. He was awarded the Frank Knox Fellowship to Harvard University in 1972 after graduating from Newcastle University. He then settled in New York and travelled from there to Mexico several times where he found inspiration for his Wall of Light series. He has lived and worked in Spain and Germany and in 2013 was elected a Royal Academician.
“It’s part of the modern world that we fly around and change location. My hope is that one day we will all look the same as we will be so inter-bred that we won’t have different races.” Ever the romantic!
He cites, of all things, Lego as an influence, having bought it for his small child and finding great pleasure from building things for him. Lego has become a metaphor. “The interesting thing about Lego and the world we live in is that everything is interchangeable, everything is moving around. We have the same refrigerator in Japan as you do in Toronto, or the same car in England as in wherever. So I’m moving these things around and putting them in weird positions, a touch of surrealism I suppose.” A classic case of postmodernism I would add.
Uninsideout is showing at BlainSouthern, 4 Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP until 17 November
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery