'My paintings talk of relationships. How bodies come together. How they touch. How they separate. How they live together, in harmony and disharmony... Its edge defines its relationship to its neighbour and how it exists in context. My paintings want to tell stories that are an abstracted equivalent of how the world of human relationships is made and unmade. How it is possible to evolve as a human being in this' (S. Scully, quoted in W. Smerling, ‘Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed’, in The Imagery of Sean Scully, exh. cat., MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Duisburg, 2009, p. 8).
Towering over the viewer with its sheer monumentality, Sean Scully’s Mariana presents itself to us as an irresistible, continuously oscillating space of abstraction. Painted in 1991, this work belongs to one of Scully’s first iconic checkerboard paintings and exquisitely encapsulates the work of an artist at the height of his practice. Emanating a sense of absorbing stillness and calm and harbouring latent movement from within, colour and form poetically coalesces into an abstraction with emblematic quality. Gestural patchworks of midnight blue and distressed white colour are exquisitely painted to form a checkerboard pattern that is superimposed by two rectangular panels of contrasting white, taupe and blue stripes. While Mariana’s powerful geometric vocabulary recalls Carl Andre's alloy squares or Donald Judd's industrial series, the artist's almost haptic application of paint celebrates the expressive and spiritual potential of painting. Scully freely uses impasto, over-painting and layering pigment to create a luxuriant paint surface; the traces of the artist's broad, gestural brushstrokes proliferate across the canvas, captivating the viewer with their seductive and tactile quality. Belonging to a series of paintings Scully named after women and which he described in terms of ‘verticality and a sense of the figure’, Mariana powerfully explores the world of human relationships through the artist’s unique pictorial language (S. Scully, quoted in Sean Scully: Resistance and Persistence Selected Writings, London 2006, p.62). As Susanne Kleine has observed, Scully ‘perceives an implicit, concealed sensuality, which occasionally reveals itself; he senses the rich pictorial world of which he cannot partake, yet which is always present and arouses curiosity’ (S. Kleine, in The Imagery of Sean Scully, exh. cat., MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Duisburg, 2009, p. 19).
Mariana gracefully demonstrates Scully’s distinctive and salient approach of interpreting artistic materials in existential and poetic terms. Drawing on Piet Mondrian's architectonic grid and Rothko's luminous chromatic harmonies, Scully's signature stripe and checkerboard motifs reconcile the structural control and graphic clarity of abstract form with the expressive and meditative potentialities of colour and gesture. ‘The checkerboard and the stripe are ways of breaking up space, of locating space. And it also relates to the idea of a game board, up there, as well, where things happen,’ Scully explained, ‘…there’s opposition and turbulence and struggle within the shape, so the shape becomes an opportunity for the self to assert itself more. Within each square, the relationship between the brushstroke and the motif is anarchistic, as it is with all the checkerboards. Each checkerboard, now, could be seen as an ‘all-over’ painting. Each one of these squares could be a painting’ (S. Scully, quoted in N. Rifken (ed.), Sean Scully: Twenty Years, 1976 – 1995, exh. cat., High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1995m p. 75). Despite its resolute abstraction, Mariana also calls to mind Giorgio Morandi’s deeply enigmatic still-lives, whose potent repetition, stillness and tonal subtleties deeply resonated with Scully. Like Morandi, Scully derives inspiration from the close observation of overlooked fragments of everyday life –architectural details, found patterns, or landscape – and bestows upon them with great sensitivity to tonal nuance, colour and compositional balance. As Scully has stated, ‘I believe with elemental forms painted from deep within the self, it is possible to make something empathetic that addresses the architecture of our spirituality’ (S. Scully, quoted in N. Rifken (ed.), Sean Scully: Twenty Years, 1976 – 1995, exh. cat., High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1995, p.11).