Review: Sean Scully – Square

A packed show may not serve the artist well

Kerlin Gallery, Anne’s Lane, Dublin 2

If you’d like to see a Sean Scully retrospective, you could 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 could spare yourself the time, energy and expense of a transatlantic trip and visit the Kerlin Gallery. There, his exhibition Square is on the scale of a small museum show, a kind of compressed retrospective spanning some 50 years or so work, selected with considerable thought by the artist himself.

The square occupies a special position in writing on modernist art, and it has been a consistent element in Scully’s painting for the last 50 years. In an essay for the handsome publication accompanying the Kerlin show, Sean Rainbird elucidates these two entangled threads. In 1915, the flat abstraction of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square marked a break with western painterly tradition from the pre-Renaissance on; one could say that Rainbird traces a critical dialogue in Scully’s work with Malevich’s square. In his work Scully, who has remarked that impurity is a vital underlying principle in his work, punctures the impervious autonomy of abstraction, and abstract minimalism, with the messiness, emotion and contingency of human experience.

The process can be traced entirely within his oeuvre, and that is largely what he does with his selection of new, recent and older pieces. It is evident even in an untitled gouache, an informal, colourful grid, from 1968. A diptych format introduces a pointedly disruptive, either/or equivalence in 1970s works made with great rigour and intensity. Stripe patterns perform the same function in single panel compositions and it’s worth noting, here, that the relatively early work holds up really well.

For some time Scully has favoured painting on a slick, metallic surface, so there's logic in a transition to a frictionless screen in a new series of iPhone Prints

Jump forward to 2020 and you come to an oil painting, Black Window Grey Land: a square black panel set into horizontal bands of muted, greenish greys. The latter, as the title suggests, evoke a landscape. The central window is quite ominous. Jacques Derrida argued that a painter is always trying to paint what lies behind the canvas, just out of sight, and here that beyond feels suspiciously like a void, a nothingness. Is it paradoxical that despite its sombre, even negative mood, the painting works as well as it does? However it works, the net result is curiously uplifting. So too with Black Square, a really terrific watercolour following the same pattern. Another oil, though, Black Square Coloured Land, is less convincing.

The problem with it, and several recent paintings, including some Wall paintings, is that its jarring palette of primaries appears pumped up, as though full of air. The effect is presumably intentional, but it’s questionable, and it doesn’t happen with the watercolours, which are consistently more grounded. For some time Scully has favoured painting on a slick, metallic surface, so there’s logic in a transition to a frictionless screen in a new series of iPhone Prints. They are shown in a block of 50, graphically effective but inevitably a mixed bag if considered piece by piece.

Square is a packed show, unusually so for the Kerlin. The 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 less well.

Until June 25th