Hiddensee (1985) is an illustration of Sean Scully’s unmistakable abstract language, rich with reverberant colour and heavy with the emotional weight of painterly endeavour. A square arrangement of the artist’s signature boxed fields of horizontal and vertical stripes, the work is structured with an understated compositional elegance that slowly reveals profound visual and spiritual depths. While the centre of the canvas is structured by four alternating horizontal bands of rich, earthy ochre and white, around its edges, vertical lines interrupt these central forms; one teal stripe stretches down the canvas, framing the work as a whole, while in the top-right corner, deep, midnight blues interchange with a brilliant yellow, truncating the top two horizontal bands of the painting. In this beautiful orchestration of colour and line, Scully’s abstractions seem imbued with a resonant, ambiguous sense of drama, the paint connoting or symbolising ideas or emotions that feel at once universal and ungraspable. As the complex red-brown that dominates the canvas invokes a visceral physicality, redolent both of the blood of the body and the earth itself, it vies against a white whose spiritual brilliance and brightness seems to have become muddied and darkened, tinged by the corporal presence of the red pigment that lies alongside it. Yet these attempts to ascribe systems of interpretation never fully account for Hiddensee’s meaning. Its colour symbolism aside, the work’s clashing horizontal and vertical planes might even be seen as distilled refinements of the axes of landscape, the lines of teal, blue and yellow serving as an upright frame to the red and white horizons that streak across the painting’s centre.
Painted in 1985, the same year as the artist’s first major solo show in America at the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, the work reflects an artist who had recently arrived at a fresh, invigorating artistic maturity. Scully turned to the stripe, his great formal instrument and motif, towards the end of the 1970s, but it was only as he reached the middle of the following decade that he began to completely define his style, exploiting the spatial interplay introduced by insetting boxes of patterns into his paintings, and refining his painterly, almost gestural use of the brush. Indeed, the brushstroke for Scully has taken on a particularly weighty significance. As much influenced by the expressionism of Van Gogh and Kirchner as Newman and Rothko, Scully – an erudite, thoughtful philosopher of painting as well as a painter – has often discussed the way in which his brushstrokes carry a symbolic import as marks of the individual’s human effort and toil to create. 'Paint strokes do a number of things, but they do not simply describe the form in my work’ he has written, ‘they affirm the human spirit, the involvement of the human spirit.' (S. Scully, Resistance and Persistence: Selected Writings, London, 2006, p. 25). In Hiddensee this human involvement or affirmation becomes clear; his brushstrokes seem almost to be have been inscribed into the canvas, the paint taking on a beautifully weather-beaten, worked quality that speaks to ancient aspects of the human condition: labour, craftsmanship, the personal and cultural memory of our actions, and the struggle to impose ourselves on the world around us.