"You can do certain things with painting that are unique to painting that you cannot do with anything else. With a painting you can contain within borders a lot of experience, narrative, emotion, poetry, idea, thought, time, references and so on, all within a frame...Painting has a unique potential to stop time and compact feelings and experience." Sean Scully
Comprised of large swathes of cerulean blues against black and maroon hues, Landline Sea pulsates with an ethereal dynamism that makes for an exceptional example of Sean Scully’s ongoing investigation of striped forms. Indeed, there is a glowing impression of shimmering color and light that enraptures the viewer with its stunning resplendency.
Scully's paintings are often connected by their titles to particular experiences, individuals and places. A nomadic artist, Scully retains studios in New York, London, Munich and Barcelona; the different psyches and lights of those cities no doubt influence the paintings made there. The novel use of colors and materials observed during a 1969 voyage to Morocco ignited Scully’s imagination. He was fascinated by the richly-dyed wools and the opulent carpets, sights so uncommon in his home city of Dublin. Then, during a trip to Mexico in the early 1980s, Scully became captivated by the stacked stones of ancient Mayan walls in the Yucatan region and by the effect of the light reflecting off of their surfaces. The artist then began to produce quilt-like structures of horizontal and vertical lines, over-painted with free use of impasto to create a luxurious paint surface. The Wall of Light series was born out of this influential trip to Mexico, a group of paintings that include Valencia Wall (2006) which achieved the record price for the artist at auction in 2008.
Painted in 2015, the present work is from the artist’s Landline series (2013-2015), which is inspired by Scully's time in Venice, Italy. As the artist remarked, “In making these paintings I was preoccupied with my memories of Venice, the movement of the water, how it heaves against the brick and stone of the city. From my studio south of Munich I often get in the car and drive a few hours down to Venice. It was the impressions from these trips that I brought back into the studio; I was painting the memories of Venice into the works” (the artist in the press release for Sean Scully: Land Sea, Palazzo Falier, 6 May 2015). Formally, Landline Sea marks a pivotal shift from his earlier work where vertical and horizontal bands are compact, layered and at times executed in extensive quilted patterns. Scully is known for building up his compositions piecemeal, applying multiple layers of paint to emphasize the presence of the artist's hand. In the present work, the artist’s handling has become extremely free with large ribbons of fluid, unconstructed strokes stretching from edge to edge of the canvas. Within his succulently colored paintings, a key hue, which is magisterially depicted in the present work, is black. Scully’s fascination with black stems from the artist’s admiration of the rich black tones in the paintings of seventeenth-century Spanish artists such as Goya and is represented here as its own top band.
The narrative aspect of Landline Sea can be viewed as expressing human relationships, each grouping of paint indicating a response to a question, an agreement or disparity. Scully states that his “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 Exh. Cat., Duisburg, Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Constantinople Or The Sensual Concealed The Imagery of Sean Scully, 2009, p. 8). More specifically, Landline Sea is an ode to the Mediterranean light, winding canals, and sun baked Palazzos, and therefore, very different in tone from the paintings made in his studios in New York or in London. It was only appropriate that a selection of paintings from the Landline series were unveiled in Land Sea, a major exhibition mounted in Palazzo Falier that ran in conjunction with the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015.
More than any artist of his generation, Scully combines the formal traditions of European painting – the brooding tones of Velásquez and Manet and the remarkable colors and brushwork of van Gogh and Matisse – with a strikingly American abstract tradition, typified in particular by Mark Rothko. Considering the heroic paintings produced during the post-war era to be his direct heritage, it is with Rothko in particular that he shares a special affinity. In Rothko's work, light combines with darkness in a moody, melancholic drama, that is the cornerstone of Scully's appreciation of his forefather. He says of his predecessor's work, "The sky and the sea, as well as all the experiences the artist has lived and all the stories he would like to tell are distilled into rectangles that have the solemnity of Stonehenge" (the artist cited in Michael Auping, 'No Longer a Wall' in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, Sean Scully: Wall of Light, 2005-06, p. 24).
Landline Sea brilliantly demonstrates Scully’s inimitable mastery of moderating palette, light, and movement to its most basic forms without eliminating its energy. A unique ebb and flow unfolds upon the canvas, demonstrating not only the possibility of color in nonfigurative form but also revealing Scully’s spirited philosophy. The artist continues to demonstrate why he is one of the foremost abstract painters of his time. Beginning in September 2018, The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden will present close to two dozen works from Scully’s Landline series.
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