Painted in 1988, Sean Scully's Shadow Line is a large scale brooding early example of the instantly recognisable style of heroic abstraction that he has developed and honed since the early 1980s. Having abandoned the reductive, hard-edged precision of his early career, Scully's mature oeuvre attempts to move beyond the cold and rationally precise to strike a balance between geometric configuration and the irregularity of the hand. Painting layer upon layer in dynamic, thoughtful and ritualized gestures, Scully lends his basic pictorial elements an emotional charge that transcends their superficial form. This grasp of painterly corporality suggests a re-personalization of abstract painting, reminding us of its unique ability to give voice to human feeling through the most restrictive means.
Titles play an essential role in augmenting the expressive potential of Scully's paintings and he is frequently drawn to literary sources to unlock themes of narrative or poetic tenor. Shadow Line is one such example, its title referring to Joseph Conrad's book of the same name in which the main character experiences a psychologically liminal state of being. With this in mind, it is possible to determine a struggle between domination and resistance in the varied modules and seeping edges of Scully's lushly painted stripes. The bands of nuanced colour are pitched against each other in a deliberately discordant
state. Although the picture plane is divided evenly into horizontal bands, the regularity of this upward sweeping motion is disrupted by the thick black border across the upper edge and the inserted canvas of alternating ochre and grey diagonals. The sculptural aspect created by this portal is further enhanced by a projecting right edge that casts its shadow across the picture plane.
The asymmetry of this composition reveals a deliberately intended paradox for the viewer in that visually the various segments of the work belong together yet physically disassociate themselves. Through this 'competitive' use of the surprisingly complex relationships that can exist between very simple forms and colours, Scully discloses his desire to paint powerful existential allegories. 'I want my paintings to express the sentiments that things are more than one way,' he has said, 'It's not a question of making something perfect, it's a question of making something true. Something that can reflect the dimensionality of the human spirit within the grid of our world. We have more than one soul' (quoted in D. Carrier, Sean Scully, London, 2004, p. 146).