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Review: Sean Scully at Walker Art Gallery

Review: Sean Scully at Walker Art Gallery

Words, Ian Fallace

The stripe can do anything in any direction and since it is so common, it corresponds to everything around us.” Sean Scully

Looking around for evidence of this I can see the old Lewis’ building in front of me; four vertical columns flank the doors, horizontal decorative stripes from the first floor to the roof, the diagonal arm of ‘Dickie Lewis’ in Epstein’s Liverpool Resurgent, lattice windows, metal fences and road markings to cut a long list short. Stripes are most definitely lurking in our urban subconscious.

Scully has painted stripes for more than forty years and this exhibition covers a period of four years from 1969-74 spanning his degree show in 1971.

He has always maintained that his work is accessible to all. Language is no barrier to enjoying the paintings and no previous knowledge is needed to respond emotionally to what’s in front of you.

But these, as Scully himself admits, are lacking the emotional beauty of his subsequent work.

These are the large hard edged, abstract paintings of a young enthusiastic painter at the beginning of a long career. They represent his enthusiasm for this genre of seemingly non-narrative painting.

What’s interesting about this show is picking out the evidence of the beginnings of a shift from industrious and industrially made, hard edged paintings (whilst single handedly keeping masking tape manufacturers in business) to works that are more expressive of human emotions. Do they show the kernels of what was to come? The softening of edges?

‘Red Light’ and ‘Bridge’ are two starkly architectural, high-rise, vertical, and horizontal dominated works. Theykeep the viewer at a distance which is the antithesis of his painting from the 80s onwards.

A conservator at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, condition checks paintings by the artist Sean Scully ahead of his exhibition opening at the gallery on 14 July. Images by Gareth Jones

In contrast are the far more intimate ‘Red’ and ‘Inset #2’, both painted a year later. In one, the surface is divided into nine squares, three by three, with two left to allow us to peep at the first layers of paint, squeegeed across the whole canvas like a screen print. The other seven are worked over with a diagonal lattice of hard edged stripes. It invites the viewer in to become tangled amongst the forest of lines.

‘Soft Ending’ seems to be a nod to Op Art as it vibrates vertical burgundy stripes and mid-green horizontals. The spray paint blurs the edges of the burgundy and you are almost forced to look beyond their lack of visual focus to the sharp green striped horizontals playing with your usual nearer-clearer understanding of how to see images in space.

Even though the paintings in the show don’t have the emotional power of later work it’s a fascinating insight into the subtle development of a young painter through experimentation. There is no clearly defined chronological development but a continual fluctuation of approaches and, subsequently, decision making leading to the creation of beautifully emotional work in later years.

The paintings that came afterwards which make up the bulk of his oeuvre, adopt the language of relationships; cooperative and empathic. And like Morandi and his dogged interrogation of the possibilities of a small collection of bottles and vases, Scully’s are still made of stripes.

Sean Scully 1970 is an exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Walker Art Gallery from 14 July – 14 October 2018