Sean Scully animates the abstract in show of gridded triptychs at Pallant House

By Mark Sheerin | 01 November 2013

Exhibition review: Sean Scully: Triptychs, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until January 26 2014

Colour shot of an abstract painting of vertical and horizontal stripes
Sean Scully, Stare (1984)©
With colours as deep as Rothko and grids as irregular as Mondrian, Sean Scully is a quintessential abstract painter. But the international artist has also stated that his luminous, architectonic works are all portraits of his own condition at time of their creation.

As a result, each one carries a charge for which the reproduction cannot prepare you. You walk into this show at Pallant and find yourself waist-deep in the midst of River. The three panels of vie for your attention like competing emotions.

The central canvas is in ascendance, lifted forward from its flanks. But all three feature his trademark stripes, built up colour by colour with a thick household brush. You can amuse yourself for minutes in front of a Scully painting, just naming the colours: acid green, cocoa brown, rose white, and so on.

At times the painter will help. Nearby work Stare contains black and whites inspired by the bleached bone and scorched wood washed up on a Long Island beach. Like all the works at Pallant, this one is also a triptych. Scully has chosen the form for its mystical and devotional associations.

Colour shot of an abstract painting of horizontal and vertical lines
Sean Scully, River (1984)©
Indeed, Stare has plenty of presence and carries as much charge as an altarpiece. Like the Maesta by Duccio, an enduring inspiration which Scully found in a chapel in Sienna, the more recent painting is polyrhythmic. But instead of saints it uses, three, two and then five stripes to carry a beat.

Pallant is an intimate space in which to encounter one of this artist’s most monumental works. That would be Winter Tryptich, before which a bench awaits. Here you can let the meditative reflections flood in as the three large panels seem to wrap themselves around you in the shallow room.

When it comes to colour, Scully has two modes: muted (as seen so far) and tempestuous. In 12 Triptychs he paints onto a dozen small copper panels and renders six in various shades of grey and the rest in complimentary shades of claret, orange, blue, umber and whatever.

Along with the ever present grids, his use of copper can be seen as a nod to US artist Donald Judd. But the slick metal surfaces are at odds with Scully’s soft edges and personal touch. This is a sculptural fusion of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism which shouldn’t work, and maybe doesn’t.

When Scully lets his paint soak into linen for the purposes of nearby monumental triptych Arles-Abend-Vincent, the effect is once again absorbing. The colours are overheated, the stripe in an almost kinetic arrangement. Surely, it is not too much to read these paintings as rotational.

After all, this is a contemporary tribute to old master Van Gogh, in whose works colour was always on the move. If these paintings slowly spin backwards, they pull us back into the late 19th century, when colours first began to break free from their moorings.

But in the works of this singleminded artist, the colours often are the moorings. Elsewhere he draws a one of his architectural triptych, in stark black and white, with an oil stick. Here the loose-lined grid could unravel were it not for a few weighty filled in blocks.

With decorator’s brush in hand, Scully might make painting look easy. But drawings like this suggest that composition is very difficult indeed. “When I’m doing something in black and white...I am at my purest,” he has said. But whether pure or sensuous, he is never less than thilling.

  • Admission £3.50-£9 (free for unwaged, family ticket £21.50). Open 10am-5pm (8pm Thursday, 11am-5pm Sunday and Bank Holidays, closed Monday).

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Pallant House pieces together wide-ranging retrospective for Eduardo Paolozzi

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