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

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Room 3: The limits of material

Scully’s works on paper are an integral part of his practice. Initially, Scully’s prints, watercolours and drawings were quite distinct from his works on canvas. In a way that tied his work to formalist painters such as Morris Louis, Scully was concerned with the particular characteristics of a given medium: ‘I’m interested in the limits of the medium, physically.’

2.17.94  1994
While they share many concerns, such as repetition of form, asymmetry and ambiguous edges, Scully’s watercolours appear radically different to his oil paintings. The oil paintings, which are themselves extremely heavy objects, are covered with a complex, dense surface or, as the artist prefers, a ‘skin’ of paint. The watercolours, by contrast, are extremely light, indeed almost ephemeral. They make apparent the medium’s ‘extreme absence of physicality. They really are as close as a painter can get to pure light, an effortless, physically effortless vision.’

10.11.98  1998
The pastel works similarly demonstrate the particular qualities of the medium: ‘The pastels … have a dryness. The material is pressed into the paper over and over and over again. Behind glass, they’re blurred, they’re indistinct. They have a physicality, but they have the physicality of powder … or chalk, whereas the paintings are shiny, inherently shiny. In other words a pastel doesn’t really have a skin. It’s full of air.’ The pastels are also directly related to Scully’s concern with ambiguity, since they are neither completely present nor absent: ‘I think the pastels have that quality — they hover between being there and not being there.’

San Domingo for Nené  1999
The relationship between the various media in Scully’s work is becoming increasingly interconnected. The examples of vernacular architecture featured in this series of photographs indicate some of the sources for Scully’s paintings. We can see details of Scully’s paintings in individual photographs, both in terms of the structure and the surfaces of buildings. The photographs also highlight the beauty that resides in the everyday world. The relationship between photography and painting is one of a series of reverberations and exchanges.

Holly  2004
Holly is a summary statement of the last two decades of Scully’s career. The 14 small paintings each embody an aspect of the artist’s work over this period. The work was created following the death of the artist’s mother. In its chapel-like arrangement of 15 canvases, Holly evokes an altarpiece and the Stations of the Cross — the 14 representations of Christ’s journey to Calvary that line the interior of Catholic churches.

The work brings to mind the efforts of other painters to create experiences that draw on religious practices. Among these is Barnett Newman’s forceful Stations of the Cross 1958–66 (National Gallery of Art Washington, DC), Henri Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary at Vence and the installation of the late works of Mark Rothko in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. Holly memorialises the artist’s mother in a form that is visually and emotionally highly charged.

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