The Land/The Line, Sean Scully
The Kerlin Gallery
3rd October-17th November
“People come in here wanting to hate them…” To turn a trite cliché if Sean Scully didn’t exist you’d have to invent him, but such is the particular idiosyncrasies of that aspect (or perception) of Ireland he captures, there is perhaps only space in the collective art consciousness for one. What the gallerist informed me cannot be said for certain to be a wholly accurate gauge of the mind state of those before encountering one of the large square Scullies from 2015 and 2017 (curiously not 2016) of the landline series. As ever the space of the Kerlin excels in displaying work of this kind of scale, big, but not excessively so, a generously portioned meal for an obese Goldilocks, the size and lighting of the space suits these creatures. Yet what the gallerist said certainly indicates there is an expectation, that they are too easy, a little too technical bereft, or perhaps rather a little too close to the bone as regards precisely what it is they speak of.
The seven works are the same size, approximately the same form, though two are canvas and five are aluminium, the ‘lines’ of the show title are there and they are not. This use of line as a denominator is surely at least partially ironic, at very few points are the delineations between the horizontalised colour forms these paintings consist of so clean as to honestly be called “line” with a straight face, there is a minimum of three dimensions at play here. They smack and trample, into and over, akin to the colours in a four year old’s ball of play dough, once pristine, now mangled and bet into each other. Which isn’t to say they aren’t clearly defined, but sometimes the so-called lines aren’t defined by themselves inasmuch as they are by the last vestiges of older lines peeping out, like disturbed graves on a building site.
But what of the uncomfortable truth in Scully’s work? TJ Clark once defended the abstract expressionists citing “vulgarity”, is there a similar defense to be mounted in Scully’s case? Perhaps, perhaps not, in selecting the term “vulgar” Clark chose a word perfectly suited to a political, economic and cultural superpower on the rise, different to Ireland. Were I to propose such a term for Scully in the context of Éire it would have to be one that holds to an equivalent essential truth about both; that word would have to be “adequate”.
Like “vulgar” it conjures a sense of the pejorative, but not necessary so. The etymological root is in the latin for “equal”, the modern sense means “just good enough”. Both meanings speak of a certain truth of Irishness, where the light under overcast skies is spread wide, thin, nothing pops in such light, photographers complain of it, the lines are not quite lines.
The paintings follow a clockwise pattern, you climb the stairs and start with the one on its own on the left. This one is clearly the first in the sequence, there is a sense of signature about it, if you had to chose one to speak for the remaining half dozen, this would be it. The mix of blues is emblematic of the selection of works here, the inside of an old pot left outdoors rust orange, the burgundy that gives the work it’s title (Landline Burgundy), the sticking plaster fleshy-beige that streaks across the middle…
The presence of aluminium and canvas-based paintings begs a question, encourages examination of the brush strokes for stories and meaning. The aluminium resists, the canvas gives; so I’m told. (Though one risks making a fool of oneself if you can’t pass the pepsi challenge without peeking round the sides to note the material). The two blues speak of dark sea, yet the blue at the bottom is almost comically so, a mutant stowaway, a child’s idea of what blue is, unnatural and yet a shade often found on school uniforms. No single “line” is uniform. As with how the margins bleed and bump, fight and jostle, so too within the strokes themselves there is disagreement, different colours cling to different bristles, nothing is clearly defined and yet it is. There are seven “lines” (Newton who gave us two purple-blues (because the number seven appealed to his occultist sensibilities) would be pleased), the burgundy is second from bottom, it is complimented by the sticking plaster beige by looking like something you’d find under a bandage.
It is difficult sometimes to separate those aspects of Irishness that are in and of themselves, “pure” so to speak and those which emerged as a technology to be used against the English. An example can be found in a scene from Paddy Breathnacht’s I Went Down, where three men in a car approach a Garda checkpoint, the two in the front are kidnapping the one in the back, the kidnappers frantically curse the presence of the Gardaí on the road ahead as they pull up towards them, but as soon as they do pull up and the Garda looms through the wound down window, Brendan Gleeson’s Bunny draws the biggest laugh of the film by making this face…
There is something sinister about “Céad Míle Fáilte”, the term “aggressive gift giving” springs to mind, to be welcomed a hundred thousand times would be beyond tolerable.
The paint is slapped and lathered, the root of the strokes, as much in elbow, shoulder, torso, as wrist. A lick of not quite painted-over brown between beige and navy blue, another of the aforementioned disturbed graves.
The second Landline Asure, promises something more tranquil, this paint is borne by canvas, the surface less brutalised, shorter strokes, more delicate, curvier. A thick, almost slime-like spearmint green dominates the middle, an unfamiliar brand of toothpaste, one blue is so navy-dark it is as though the paint itself is hiding the strokes out of shame. There is no flatness here either, not really.
The third is brother to the first, perhaps twin. A broader spectrum. The longer, raking, straighter strokes the aluminium provokes, return. Again sea and rust, but a darker rust-red, situated on top, like a burning sky. A green is murdered and buried under granny-tights beige, can something that doesn’t aim for perfection have imperfections? A stab of white along the side, elderly pubic hair to go with the tights. Along the bottom is a dirty mustard, you’d think it had been dipped in it, if it wasn’t for the strokes.
The state of mind these images most readily reveal their nature to is sleep deprived. Jordowsky stayed awake for a week in the company of a zen master before shooting Holy Mountain. Camera pull back. Extreme heat and extreme cold are indistinguishable to touch. Place your arm along a series of bars which alternate cold and warm it will trick your system into registering extreme heat; apparently. The fourth is shaded like a child hiding in a ditch, or maybe she’s just thinking or longingly for the recent past to escape the near future as she rides in the back of the car being driven officiously back to the home she’d fled. This is what comes to mind when I look at Landline Crimson.
The lines have personality. The one painting called untitled has an expanse of grey, halfway between a view and being intensely accosted by John Major’s Spitting Image puppet. What does Scully have against canvases? Michelangelo struck David with his hammer demanding it speak, after it was finished, Scully attacks his canvases from the get go screaming, “shut up”.
The sixth is almost behaving itself, “yes Garda, as you can see…” the lines are almost evenly spaced. Here at last we have some green, but a green no Board Fáilte brochure would dare make use of. This is the green of Holbein’s dead Christ that so disturbed Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, not dying, not resurrected, but dead. This was the painting that on my first visit attracted flies, the gallerist approached me when he saw me taking photographs of them up close, we’d been in college about the same time, he a year below me (I think), but older, American, “please don’t post those online”, of course. Like a fascinating wound, the seat of all your attention, itchy, sore, pustulant, begging to be popped, prodded, picked, more engrossing than a smartphone in a hospital waiting room.
It is a treat to spend so much time with them, or at least to have a reason to, they require time. Footsteps and mouse clicks, short overheard conversations. The owner asking about the affordability of water taxis in some city he has to meet an artist, the gallerist answering a phone, saying matter of factly “about 11”. It seems everyone in here has a cold, sporadic coughing abounds, including from myself. I take it back, this one is the most obedient yet. Strokes shorter, more numerous, smoother, more bet in.
All is lit superbly. I am done, but never done with you Ireland, emigrant writers who can’t stop writing about here, you know the type, suppose you get it in painters too. Dignity in smeared makeup, like the drunk who feels sobered up in the company of the far drunker companion she’s waiting patiently with in the station at four in the morning. A strange blue-pink, the colour of a newborn chick tossed from a nest, an umbilical cord or varicose veins.
They are not lines,
They are not land,
They are people.
Seanán Kerr was born in 1980, some stuff happened, then he wrote this. He is currently studying for an MA with Art in the Contemporary World, NCAD