DETAIL : Sean SCULLY Ireland 1945  Robe figure, 2003 2003 Painting oil on canvas

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Room 2: Scully’s realism

 The stripe and silence
Scully’s leitmotif is the stripe. His fascination with it originated during a visit he made to Morocco in 1969. Scully’s paintings immediately responded to images of strips of cloth drying in the sun that he had seen there. His paintings have since become bold grids of coloured stripes. Many paintings in this roompresent such a grid, the size and complexity of which is often visually compelling. Yet the intense opticality of these paintings seems to exist outside of language. It is very difficult to describe Scully’s paintings. It is not that they defy description as such, but that language only goes some way towards accounting for the work and the experience of it.

 Repetition: Wall of light Arran  2002 and Yellow bar  2002
Repetition is also one of Scully’s key motifs. For Scully, repetition is part of modern, urban life: ‘I want to express that we live in a world with repetitive rhythms and that things are existing side by side that seem incongruous or difficult.’ These repetitive rhythms and juxtapositions are ultimately very revealing: ‘out of that, is our truth. It expresses where we are [… and] our truth, expresses some kind of spirituality that we have, or the possibility of this. And it’s the way that these modern relationships are reflected in the paintings that makes me, I think, into a kind of realist. So they are in a way a kind of realism, but it’s a romantic realism.’

Wall of light Arran and Yellow bar are made of a series of horizontal and vertical stripes placed in three rows. The formal arrangement of the paintings reflects the repetitive rhythms of architectural construction. Repetition also operates between each painting. With the exception of the lower right and left corners, the placement of stripes across each painting is identical.

Four large mirrors  1999
Repetition is also a fundamental aspect of the multiple-part work Four large mirrors. Repetition is structural to each of the four canvases, since they are made of two conjoined parts. Each of the eight parts is made of a series of horizontal bars. These reference architecture or train tracks, and present a distorted reflection of each other. As with Wall of light Arran and Yellow bar, repetition operates both within each canvas and between canvases.

Scully’s interest in repetition is also announced in the work’s title. Repetition is basic to the act of looking in the mirror. Mirrors are a central feature of our cultural landscape, both in the home and in the street, where reflective glass surfaces present us with fleeting images of ourselves as we move around.
The mirror features in many of our most popular folk tales; the phrase ‘mirror, mirror on the wall …’ marks one of our first lessons in the dangers of narcissism and excessive vanity. Artists use mirrors to paint self-portraits. A painting itself is often understood as presenting a mirror to the world. This is one of the tasks of the realist artist: to enable us to see the contemporary world, a world which, because we are so distractedly immersed in it, we are unable to see or make sense of.

The practice of painting: Sea wall  2002
Scully applies paint in a series of layers. This process builds up a dense surface of paint, in which layers of colour merge and compete with each other to create ambiguousedges. Layering also creates what the artist describes as ‘tremors’. Note the red that pierces through the stripes in Sea wall.

Scully layers paint so as to jettison our expectations, since nothing is as it first appears. As he has said of his method: ‘When I’m painting, I’m overlaying and overlaying and I might paint a painting green and I end up painting it black and white and the green is somehow influencing what you’re looking at. The green informs the tremor along the edges, between the colours. So what you’re seeing is perhaps a black and white painting, but what you are feeling is a green painting. So the experience becomes extremely complex … It’s the tremors between things that the overlaying of colour can achieve … And it’s the difference between feeling something and knowing something.’

The artist destabilises our expectations further by breaking up the surface of the canvas with his inserts. In Falling figure and Stacked yellow figure, both painted in 2002, Scully’s inserted canvas ‘violat[es] … the skin, the surface of the painting’ to disrupt the cohesion of the painting.

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