Sean Scully – Carré – The Irish Times

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Kerlin Gallery, Anne’s Lane, Dublin 2

If you want to see a Sean Scully retrospective, you can head to Philadelphia, where The Shape of Ideas at the Philadelphia Art Museum offers a comprehensive overview of his work to date. Or, if you happen to be in Dublin, you can save yourself the time, energy and expense of a transatlantic trip and visit the Kerlin Gallery. There, his Square exhibition takes on the scale of a small museum exhibition, a sort of condensed retrospective of some fifty years of works, selected with great thought by the artist himself.

The square occupies a special position in writing about modernist art, and it has been a constant feature in Scully’s painting for the past 50 years. In an essay for the beautiful publication accompanying Kerlin’s show, Sean Rainbird elucidates these two tangled threads. In 1915, the flat abstraction of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square marks a break with the Western pictorial tradition of the pre-Renaissance; one could say that Rainbird traces a critical dialogue in Scully’s work with Malevich’s square. In his work, Scully, who has pointed out that impurity is a vital underlying principle in his work, pierces the impermeable autonomy of abstraction and abstract minimalism, with the disorder, emotion and contingency of the human experience.

The process can be fully traced in his work, and much of it does with his selection of new, recent and older pieces. This is evident even in an untitled gouache, an informal and colorful grid, from 1968. A diptych format introduces a disturbing equivalence, or/or, in the works of the 1970s produced with great rigor and intensity. Striped patterns perform the same function in single-panel compositions and it should be noted here that the relatively early work holds up very well.

For some time now, Scully has favored painting over a smooth metallic surface, so there’s logic in a transition to a frictionless display in a new series of iPhone Prints.

Fast forward to 2020 and you come to an oil painting, Black Window Gray Land: a black square panel made up of horizontal bands of muted greenish gray. The latter, as the title suggests, evoke a landscape. The central window is quite disturbing. Jacques Derrida argued that a painter always tries to paint what is behind the canvas, just out of sight, and here this beyond looks strangely like a void, a nothingness. Is it paradoxical that despite its dark, even negative mood, painting works so well? Either way, the net result is oddly uplifting. Likewise with Black Square, a really great watercolor following the same pattern. Another oil, however, Black Square Colored Land, is less compelling.

The problem with her, and several recent paintings, including some murals, is that her jarring palette of primaries seems bloated, as if full of air. The effect is presumably intentional, but it’s debatable, and it doesn’t happen with watercolors, which are always more grounded. For some time now, Scully has favored painting over a smooth metallic surface, so there’s logic in a transition to a frictionless display in a new series of iPhone Prints. They come in a block of 50, graphically effective but inevitably a mixed bag when considered piece by piece.

Square is a packed sight, which is unusual for the Kerlin. Calculated density and diversity generate energy, and the dialogue between older and newer work is never less than illuminating and engaging. Overall, Square serves the Scully brand well, but Scully the Artist perhaps not so well.

Until June 25 Kerlin.ie

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