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May 09, 2011
Sean Scully, whose paintings and drawings are on view at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, sees his work as fighting the “tyranny” of the grid.
By Menachem Wecker
Dublin-born painter Sean Scully has clearly thought a lot about the power of shapes.
In a recent tour of his solo show Sean Scully: Works on Paper, on view at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery through June 24, Mr. Scully discussed the “tyranny” of geometry and symmetry.
The late 1960s and early 1970s movement Minimalism, which was popularized by artists like Frank Stella, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, is a “tautology” and a “very authoritarian kind of art,” Mr. Scully said, gesturing to the tiles on the floor to illustrate his point.
“These literally are submissive to the regular grid. They are the regular rendition of the regular grid. That’s Minimalism,” he said of the Brady Gallery floor tiles. “My work is the irregular rendition of what could have been the regular grid. That makes it different.”
A lot of what Mr. Scully said in the tour may have required an advanced degree in art history to grasp.
He talked about trying “in some way to destroy [the grid’s] tyranny by subjecting it to a kind of lyricism” and the distinction between “ground” and “figure ground.” He called oil paint “disobedient,” talked about his paintings as “lyrical cityscapes” and about “bringing out the light that is inherently in the paper.”
But when he talked about the power of shapes, Mr. Scully was particularly animated and accessible.
“I’m interested in subversive kinds of power,” he said.
Speaking of the 27 watercolors, oil paintings and drawings in pen, pastel and pencil in the show, Lenore Miller, M.F.A. ’72, director of university art galleries and chief curator, said. “This is probably one of the greatest shows we’ve ever had in 10 years.”
Both GW President Steven Knapp and Luther W. Brady, B.A. ’46, M.D. ’48, toasted Mr. Scully. Dr. Brady noted a t-shirt he had seen in a shop once, which said, “I’ve heard it all. I’ve seen it all. I’ve done it all. I just don’t remember it all.” He has had such a close relationship with Mr. Scully that he cannot even remember when it began, said Dr. Brady, a collector of Mr. Scully’s works.
During the tour, Mr. Scully said one watercolor, which he made in the hospital the day after surgery, ought to appeal particularly to a doctor like Dr. Brady.
“I was quite proud of myself for being able to wake up from surgery, eat my dinner and the next day make a watercolor, after having quite a painful surgery,” he said.
After the tour, Mr. Scully was asked if he had advice for aspiring painters who might be studying at GW. He smiled before dodging the question.
“I wouldn’t advise anyone to take on any profession. That’s up to them,” he said. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to be a boxer or race car driver.”
When pressed, he added a few tips. Being a painter and a successful painter are two very different things, he said. “It’s not a question of whether it’s fun in the beginning,” he added. “The question is if you can do it for a lifetime.”
Painters need to know themselves, as well. “Painters are really seers,” he said. “It’s a question of what you see. What you can recognize in the culture and what you can bring to that recognition.”
It’s also very important to learn to draw as a student. “Drawing is very difficult,” he said. “What you put in your basket when you are a student is what you will take out of your basket as you sail through life.”
So does that mean that students need to break out real world pencils and sketch pads and log out of Photoshop and Illustrator?
“A computer drawing is not the same as a drawing that is made by a hand, because a computer drawing will prescribe possible results,” Mr. Scully said. “The only way to escape that is to escape the computer.”
A computer is manmade, he said, which compromises its usefulness for certain types of art.
“It imposes the inevitability of a certain result on. So, for art, I’m not sure how useful the computer is,” he said. “If you are involved in Pop Art it’s perfect. If you are involved in spiritually informed art, it’s not perfect and not appropriate.”
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