‘I am doing a series of paintings and giving them the title of women. They have a verticality and a sense of the figure’
‘The windows in my recent paintings are something that I am very excited about: they are not an illusion, and they’re not necessarily an allusion to another space, a physical space, as they might be if the paintings were to be interpreted literally or materially. They function as metaphors for either hope or disturbance, or for another kind of reality in what is an otherwise obsessive field … This is my way of making the paintings human’
Stretching over two metres in height, Eve is a hypnotic large-scale example of Sean Scully’s celebrated ‘inset’ paintings. Against a vast background of shimmering horizontal bands, two small striped panels hover like inlaid jewels. Warm tones of burnished red and amber glimmer against thick swathes of grey and black paint, swept across the canvas in fluid beams of pigment. Spanning over two decades of his practice, Scully’s inset paintings lie at the very heart of his abstract investigations. Like windows onto an alternate reality, these ‘pictures-within-pictures’ transform the work into a piece of architecture: a multi-dimensional structure composed of interlocking canvases. Alongside Lucia (BAWAG Foundation, Vienna) and Catherine (Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas), Eve belongs to a small group of inset paintings named after women, in which the vertical arrangement of the inlaid panels takes on a near-figural quality. Following in the tradition of the so-called ‘abstract sublime’, as practised by artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, Scully plays with the traditional relationship between figure and ground, allowing basic visual elements – colour, form, line and shape – to assume an almost human presence. Speaking of the inset paintings, Scully explains how ‘I was interested in the fragility of that relationship, that the outside of the painting swamped the inset, the smaller panel, which is more intimate … I try to humanize my paintings through the physical layering of colour, which can add surface complexity and mystery to a painting that has enormous size and bulk. Up close, I would like the painting to be felt poetically and intimately’ (S. Scully, quoted in N. Rifkin, Sean Scully, London 1995, p. 32). Scully’s inset paintings are held in museum collections worldwide, including Tate, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D. C.
Scully was deeply inspired by his travels to Morocco during the 1960s, where he was struck by the rich geometry of his surroundings: local colour-dyed woollen cloth hanging in strips to dry, and the dilapidated façades of faded buildings. Indeed, as he has explained, the alternating coloured stripes that have come to define his work were directly influenced by the fabric tent coverings he encountered during his time in North Africa. Unlike Op Artists such as Bridget Riley, who were also experimenting with striped patterns at this time, Scully consciously aligned his practice with the spiritual concerns of Newman and Rothko, viewing his abstract bands as a way of engaging with the transcendental properties of light and colour. The trace of the artist’s hand courses through every brushstroke, activating and differentiating the strips of pigment. ‘My painting … is a compression: a compression of form, edge, weight’, he has explained. ‘And colour participates in this density. The painting is immediate since it is painted aggressively, by hand; yet it is difficult because it is compressed. The light in the paintings has to be opened up, pulled out. And it is exactly this difficulty that gives the work its interior life. It is an incarnation, not an explanation’ (S. Scully, quoted in F. Ingleby (ed.), Sean Scully. Resistance and Persistence: Selected Writings, London 2006, p. 36). In the inset paintings, the inlaid canvases function like portals, allowing the incursion of new colours, new rhythms and new horizons. Light and shade oscillate within their chromatic depths, absorbed, reflected and refracted across the textured surface of the linen. In Eve, radiant strains of warmth break through the surrounding darkness: a glimpse of a world beyond the veil.