Sean Scully cited in: Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Sean Scully: Landline, 2018, pp. 11-12.
Horizontal swathes of impasto paint sweep over one another in Sean Scully’s Landline Red Blue; their dark, ominous hues evoking a brooding melancholy for which the introspective artist is known. Part of Scully’s acclaimed Landlines series, the present painting is a salient example of the artist’s ingenuity in fusing European Old Master sensuality with American Abstract Expressionism’s intellectual cool. With mesmeric impasto layers of electric blue, ochre, black and purple, Landline Red Blue ensnares the viewer in its sublimity, promising a glimpse into Scully’s complex psyche.
Begun in 1999, Landlines marked a paradigmatic shift in the artist’s oeuvre. Whereas his earlier grid-like paintings convey the sense of living in sprawling urban jungles, where skyscrapers and apartments vie for limited space, Landlines are abstract portrayals of nature. The colour stripes represent horizon lines, the ending point of vision where sky melts into sea, and sea morphs into land. Between the borders of sky, sand, and sea, space stretches out into infinity. The artist adopts the horizon as a symbol for endless possibilities and new beginnings. The colour stripes of Landline Red Blue stand for the countless land and maritime borders Scully has crossed in his migrations and travels around the world.
When Scully travelled to the 2015 Venice Biennale for Landlines’ debut exhibition at the Palazzo Falier, he became enchanted by the city’s light, water and masonry. Inspired by the rhythmic lapping of the water against glittering stone, the artist began to experiment with shades of blue, injecting into his palette of predominantly earth-tones a new-found lightness. Executed in 2015, Landline Red Blue is among the first paintings created after this revelation, and features two shades of blue that balance the ominous hues with a surging serenity and optimism.
More than his previous work, the Landlines are testimonies to personal experiences in the artist’s private life. Afflicted in 2012 with a serious back injury, Scully was left prostrate on the sofa, addled with oxycodone and unable to work. After months of stagnation, the artist decided to quit the medication and return to painting. In his weakened state, Scully found the side-to-side motion of Landlines less taxing on the body than the up-and-down, explaining: “vertical shapes will always convey the energy of action… Horizontal stripes are like the horizon – resting, in repose. They are tranquil” (Sean Scully cited in: Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Sean Scully: Landline, 2018, p. 12).
Landlines thus charted Scully’s journey out of pain and medication. They became, literally, his lifeline. Symbolisms of the body are evident in Landline Red Blue: the blue lines, representing restorative water, support the dark red of blood coursing through arteries. With Landlines, Scully not only gained access to his own healing, but also sublimated his salvation into emotions that transfer, via the canvas, to the viewer. Standing in front of these monumental paintings, one can’t help but let tides of emotions wash over and rush through their bodies, cleansing their spirit.
Combining the brooding tones of Velazquez with Mark Rothko’s expressive use of colour forms, Scully’s practice bridges the gap between Europe and America, between old tradition and new invention. Belonging to the artist’s most personal and critically acclaimed series, Landline Red Blue exemplifies Scully’s aptitude for turning his personal struggles into a source of creativity. The painting’s striking juxtaposition of rich blue and red hues marks the latest stage in the artist’s ongoing development of the series.
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