Scully’s work combines the formal traditions of European painting – the brooding tones of Velazquez and Manet and the remarkable colours and gestural brushwork of Van Gogh and Cezanne – with a distinctly American abstract tradition, epitomised in particular by Rothko and Pollock. Through his use of rectangular brick-like forms that fit closely together as verticals and horizontals, Scully has evolved his own abstract language which despite its apparent simplicity creates powerfully complex structures. Magenta Figure is a striking example of this iconic pictorial dialect. Scully notes that the ‘Horizontals are the eternal horizon, where we see the edge of our own local world. Verticals are assertive, like us standing. There are a lot of references to figures and nature in my work, so naturally it has a psychological aspect to it, where the assertive and the affirmative human action come into contact with the permanent’ (the Artist, quoted in David Carrier, Sean Scully, London, 2004, p.211).
Although essentially an abstract painter, Scully’s paintings are linked by their titles to people, places and experiences; Scully explained: ‘paintings talk of relationships. How bodies come together. How they touch. How they separate. How they live together, in harmony and disharmony’ (the Artist, quoted in Constantinople or The Sensual Concealed The imagery of Sean Scully, exh. cat., Duisburg, Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, 2009, p.8). Magenta Figure has a complex, almost architectural structure comprising multiple panels each of equal importance. Like Rothko, Scully combines light with darkness in his work to create drama, applying layer after layer of thick oil paint. Within this richly coloured painting, the key hue is black. Two wide black vertical bands enclose a central block coloured with an intense rich oxide red. These three vertical bands are alleviated by smaller horizontal bricks of whites, yellows and browns to create an asymmetrical yet balanced composition.
The addition of an inserted canvas gives the painting a sculptural quality with yet another contrasting surface texture. At the edges of these bricks which almost pulse with energy, the colours gently nudge into each other creating narrow indentations (almost as if light is shining through) and revealing deep layers of pigment lurking under the surface: ‘The colour I use has no name or clear message. It is moody or melancholic at times…The colour on top is influenced by the colour underneath… and in a sense, it is like history itself. It is made in layers and one attitude is replaced by another. But what was there will always be there, as a shadow or a memory and that will permanently influence the present’ (the Artist, in an interview with Jörg Zutter, 16 January 2004, Mooseuracgh, Königsdorf).
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