Scully (b.1945) the Irish bruiser’s back in town. He’s not been long away. His most recent show of new paintings, on display at Blain Southern in Hanover Square, closed just a few months ago. He’s a man who regards himself – you can hear it in the rough-edged way he talks; observe it in how he holds himself, that ready-for-anything manner – as more than a bit of a global phenomenon. He has studios in several countries. He grew up amongst travellers in a poor part of Dublin. Now he hops around in a private jet, and he just doesn’t care what anyone thinks about anything that he ever does or says. A new film labels him unstoppable.
His new exhibition is in the basement of the National Gallery. It consists of paintings made in response to great works of the past from the National Gallery’s own collections: Turner’s The Evening Star (c.1830), for example, and Van Gogh’s Chair. There are other paintings here, too, some of which make reference to the fact that Scully has has had several museum shows in China in recent years.
Scully is an abstract painter for the most part. Lozenges of intense colour – rectangles, cubes, all abutting each other – are his trademark, all loosely shaped into grid-like forms. The entire history of abstract painting – abstract expressionism, minimalism, etc. – seems to be feeding into them. The paintings are force-fields, pools of reverie-inducing colour into which you can nose-dive and then swim around at your leisure. Looking at them close up, you see evidence of how exactly he has painted these works. The brush strokes are laid down with a kind of fury of making, heavy swathes of oil paint pushed and heaved about from side to side. They have a ridgy gleam about them. It’s a battle in all but name. Scully’s been painting like this for years. Museums throughout the world can’t get enough of him.
His universal acceptability as a painter fascinates, the fact that he can appeal as much to Mexicans as to Chinese Communists. This tells us something about the nature of abstract painting as practised by this man, the fact that it is clearly regarded as politically harmless as far as content is concerned. Once upon a time, in the aftermath of the Second World War, abstract painting provided a solution to any painter’s dilemma: what to paint in the aftermath of a war which seemed to have destroyed the possibility of representing the human figure at that historical moment of global exhaustion and hopelessness…
Scully’s a persuasive talker, and a man who knows how to insert himself, deftly, into the history of world painting. His paintings sell for lots of money. He’s also a man who lacks modesty – why waste time on modesty when there is greatness and fame to be reached out for? – which make him rather unappealing. But no more unappealing than that difficult man Vincent van Gogh would have been.
Sea Star: Sean Scully at the National Gallery, Ground Floor Galleries, 13 April-11 August