To come all the way to China to see the mid-life retrospective of one of best-known living abstract painters in the world is quite a level of commitment and as a result you must have already prejudged that this is going to be a positive review. Sean Scully is no stranger to the British and international art scenes. He was nominated for the Turner Prize no less than twice and has persevered, producing quality work through all sorts of ‘God Awful’ trends in art, that have come and gone, disappearing from our visual memories, without a trace.
His current exhibition has been mounted at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum an imposing structure designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. It is in a new area of the city, which is kind of reminiscent of the NEC (Birmingham) The museum is sandwiched by a shopping centre and a 5 star hotel, part of the chain that built the 7 star ‘Wave’ hotel in Dubai. If entering the Museum via the hotel you must pass through a Bavarian Christmas market, complete with a village of B&Q style wooden chalets and acres of cotton wool snow, covered in glitter. The context is completely bizarre but this is Shanghai. The museum is in a building which looks like Antoni Gaudi gone wrong and to add to it, the outer casing of the newly built structure is already cracking, however once inside the actual gallery, you get a sense of why the space was chosen for the task of introducing the sublime work of Mr Scully to the masses in China.
I first discovered Sean’s work in the 1989 at an exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery and have followed his career ever since. If my memory serves me well, I remember an assault of painterly blocks of colour, some horizontal, some vertical – reminiscent of the haphazard walls you see in places like Morocco and India. Some of this period is represented in the Shanghai show. What I have never seen before is Scully put into context. Something that this Phillip Dodd curated exhibition does remarkably well.
The start of the exhibition (avoid the arrow on the floor which of course takes you completely the wrong way) includes several early drawings and works on paper, as well as a few surviving canvases which show just how strong a colourist Mr Scully has always been. I was particularly taken by a portrait in a Fauvist style that completely understood the handling of colour as utilised by Matisse & Co as well as the German Expressionists, in the early part of the 20th century. Another example of this style, a work on paper, titled ‘Untitled Seated Figure’,1968 backs this up and gives insight into what Scully was incubating to use later in his artistic development.
The next phase in his career covers the early to mid 1970s and Sean like many artists embraced a hard edge style of painting, so popular at the time. These share a common ground with Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie a work seminal to his lexicon of seeing. The hard edge paintings are urban, architectural and well executed, however they lack the deep spirituality which was about to manifest.
Towards the late 1970s Scully’s lines had softened and started bleeding between the areas of colour which started to blur. I think that this was the breakthrough that began the process of Sean finding his voice. This is evident in paintings such as ‘Blue’ 1977. By the 1980s we start to see his trademark ‘Wall of Colour’ style develop. Sean states of his breakthrough, “I went from figurative painting, influenced by expressionism to a kind of minimal painter and than I suffered a great crisis because I wanted my paintings to communicate further and I felt abstract painting had lost its ability to communicate, so I referred back to my figurative painting and stuck it onto my abstract painting which made sense”.
More importantly Sean Scully’s work is still evolving, evident in his latest works, many on aluminium. His work has never been shy to take on three dimensional qualities. This is clear in his sculpture, which up until now has reflected his painting, using large blocks of various coloured granite. The centrepiece of the ‘Follow The Heart’ exhibition is a massive steel sculpture which is so new it hasn’t even been illustrated in the catalogue. This is without a doubt another breakthrough for the artist and is also reflected in his two dimensional 2014 painting ‘Jet Black’ a spray on aluminium work and Landline Deep Blue also 2014. A new light, openness has also started to occur and where this takes him we can only wait to see. Sean says. The return of green to his palate is also “the sign of the vitality of nature”. This optimism is partially the result of him becoming a father, for the second time, late in life.
In our conversation, Sean revealed; “What surprises me is that so many people identify with my paintings and they are abstract paintings and it is fascinating that you can do that with abstraction” But my guess is that his work provokes a far deeper emotional engagement from the viewer than most of his contemporaries works. This allows the work to project many different values, rendering it universal.
The exhibition, Follow the Heart: The Art of Sean Scully 1964-2014, surveys the artist’s career over the last 50 years in over 100 works including some of his most important pieces from the1980s and 90s. 24 November 2014 – 31 January 2015 Shanghai Himalayas Museum The exhibition then moves to Beijing.
Words/Photo Paul Carter Robinson © Artlyst 2014