Higher Aspirations


Sean Scully, Wall of Light, Alba, oil on linen, 2001  (©Sean Scully)

While I was writing recently about the quilts of Gee’s Bend (see “Inner Sympathy of Meaning”), I couldn’t stop thinking about Sean Scully’s work. One of my  initial thoughts was to pair the two bodies of work—there seemed to be a lot of fodder for discussion. But the expansive scope of that endeavor quickly became apparent and I wasn’t seeing a way to rein it into a blog entry.  So, I left the comparisons for another venue, acknowledging that Scully’s work would stand alone in its own entry.

Still, as I start out on this discussion, I can’t help but note perhaps the obvious— that despite the difference in materials and process, and beyond their similarity of design (i.e. rectangular blocks of color), both the quilts and Scully’s paintings share a spirituality that derives from a deep connection to the universal human condition. My guess is that the Gee’s Bend quilters were just following their hearts, taking pride in making something beautiful out of a utilitarian folk form,  unconscious of any “deeper” meaning all of us might ascribe to the pieces.

Sean Scully, on the other hand, is very deliberate and passionate about using abstract form to explore our Ur-emotions. He once explaned:

“I’m interested in art that addresses itself to our highest aspirations. (Abstract art) allows you to think without making oppressively specific references, so the viewer is free to identify with the work. It’s a non-denominational religious art. I think it’s the spiritual art of our time.”

Not bound to figurative references and the biases each of us harbors about them, Scully is able to explore all aspects of humanity untethered.  As a lover of patterns, I marvel at the way he creates complexity by repeating a simple shape without succumbing to repetition itself.  I respond on an inexplicable, instinctual level to his use of layered color.  There’s something at once both vibrant and soothing about the combinations. Further, in applying the paint so that vestiges of layers beneath show through, Scully has created a sort of living, breathing thing.

Look at them long enough and the compositions begin to suggest places you’ve been. In Wall of Light, Alba (above) I can see a sunny harbor on the Mediterranean (millions of geraniums) or perhaps the pine-scented mountains of Eastern Turkey with their chalk-y outcroppings.  His Figure in Grey series remind me how grey New York can be.

Sean Scully once confessed: “Every day I look at the sky to capture the colour of the day with an anxiety to achieve a synthesis between the cultural world, natural world, and personal world.” High aspirations indeed.

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