Tag Archives: Sean Scully

Sean Scully, Extraterrestrial

This summer, in the Regent’s park in London, the annual Frieze sculpture show has a piece by Sean Scully. It is titled “Shadow Stack, 2018” and made of Corten steel.

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Shadow Stack, 2018 by Sean Scully

The short curatorial note describes it as follows: “Shadow Stack continues Scully’s preoccupation with the horizon. A three-dimensional extension of his Landline paintings, the oxidation of the steel echoes their stripe motif, giving the surfaces a textual painterly quality”.

I believe it was written by someone from Blain|Southern gallery that represents Scully.

I don’t think I could never be employed by a respected gallery of the Blain|Southern caliber. First, I tend to say “rust resembling paint” when I see rust resembling paint. Second, I don’t believe that a “preoccupation” with something by any one person is of interest to anybody.

The end result of any artist’s phobias, preoccupations, and insecurities can be interesting if it goes beyond addressing people with the same “diagnoses”. Otherwise, it is simply a clinical illustration of a patient’s “condition”.

Take Yayoi Kusama who fears penises and vents out this fear in her art. Her fear of male genitalia is her idiosyncratic psychological problem that is of interest to her therapist, but her chair made of the objects of her terror has a much broader appeal, because it reminds people of rape, abuse and sexual violence – all the more relevant today in the context of the #MeToo movement.

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When creative motivation is reduced by a critic to “preoccupation” I get an acute pang of “myötähäpeä” (personal embarrassment one feels on account of and for another who is making a fool of him or herself). I don’t think Scully is preoccupied solely with the horizon. His thinking is broader.

There is one point though on which I agree with the critic from Blain|Southern. I agree that Scully’s sculpture is a three-dimensional extension. The question is, an extension of what?

If you read my previous text about Scully’s paintings, you will see the point I make is that Scully is painting a world of a different set of dimensions. His paintings are flat projections of a different, multi-dimensional universe onto ours.

His sculpture does the same, except that this time it is a 3D protrusion of Scully’s multi-dimensional universe into our world.

Here is my logic.

This piece is not made organically in this world, that is, not created by nature. It can be seen as either an edifice that was man-made and placed on the grass above ground OR it can be perceived as something that came up from below hence originating in a different, supernatural, world.

While the first notion is, in fact, the ‘reality’, it doesn’t offer any significant meaning to the viewer, while the second supposition transforms the viewer into an observer of something phenomenal and unique: a universe where natural shapes and forms are very foreign to our daily references yet remain aesthetically pleasant at the same time.

The absence of a pedestal, with the bottom slab half-submerged/half-emerged from the ground (depending on how you wish to read it) offers another argument in favour of theory #2.

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The slabs tick away a vertical rhythm that makes the mind believe there is an upward push. There is also a sense of ‘unevenness’, of ‘disorder’ that enhances the artist’s search for rhythm. As the slabs shift against each other, they manifest the internal energy and a bit of chaos inside the structure. We welcome chaos because without it there is no life, and we celebrate order because it is essential to life preservation. This sculpture has them both.

I can’t think of a better place for this sculpture than a park. This otherworldly projection is foreign but somehow quite fitting to the earthly landscape.

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The magic Scully creates is in the absence of weight. When we look at a tree, we don’t think of the pressure that the trunk is experiencing at its lower part. No compassion outpours towards the wood cells at eye level that are locked up in the heavy trunk. Yet, we feel the weight and pressure in, say, a building such as the one in the following image:

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If we reflect on it, we can imagine the subliminal effect this has on the ground floor employees working there and we can even feel sorry for them.

We feel the changing weight in the sculpture of Chung Hung in the photograph below:  it is much heavier at the bottom than at the top:

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Chung Hung metal sculpture made with Corten, at Vanier Park. Source

Even a simple concrete tower radiates weight that lands on earth from above:

But weight is not the first association that comes to mind when we look at Scully’s tower:

As the mind tucks away the weight aspect, we pay more attention to the play of shadows, the shifts of slabs, the growth of this otherworldly edifice and, ironically, we feel a sense of lightness – a contradiction I believe the artist wanted us to experience .

In essence, Scully opens up a hole in the fabric of our reality, and something interesting comes out, which he leaves up to each viewer to imagine, for his or her self.

What do you experience when you look it it?

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Sean Scully: the artist of a higher dimension

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If you were in an exhibition of Sean Scully’s work and walked up to a random viewer and asked him or her to describe what hey see when they look at one of his paintings, most often the answer would be “patterns of color and geometric shapes”.

Although a cursory glance might lend some truth to that observation, the same answer could be said of quite a lot of wallpaper – and it doesn’t help to understand why some people are enchanted and captivated by his work.

Similarly, it is often difficult to venture beyond the formal description of an abstract work of art intellectually or emotionally, in a same way that’s impossible to appreciate the beauty of E=mc² unless you’ve covered quite a lot of basic physics –or the brilliance of a famous chess move unless you are familiar with the rules of the game.

What we will do now, is prepare our minds for Sean Scully and, together, we will be able to decipher the magic and power of this artist.


Imagine any spring (like the old fashioned ones for beds). In order for it to release its energy it has to be compressed first. Similarly, to think big, to let one’s imagination explode, it is necessary for the ‘thinker’ to reduce “the big picture” and think small before freeing their mind and letting it go loose. Our brain uses the same mechanism when we look at a scaled model of a sculpture or a building (or anything monumental) to better understand the workings of a complex machine.

When math students are first introduced to the abstraction of a multi-dimensional space it is difficult for them to really comprehend what it means. We are so used to three dimensions that even the next step up, a four-dimensional space, is a concept that is often impossible to grasp – the way to understand the basic idea of a 4d space, however paradoxical it may seem, is to reduce the number of dimensions; most often that does the trick.

Imagine a two dimensional space such as the image below – yes, view image on your screen as a sheet of paper. As you can see, it is inhabited by dots.

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The dots can’t jump off the page, as they are not aware of the third dimension. They are not even aware of our existence.  Look at the square and imagine a dot has locked itself in its house, certain no one can see it. It is true that other dots only see the walls. But we see the furtive dot perfectly well.

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And, if we want to punish the dot, we can hit it on the head, erase it, cut it in half, and the dot would never even know from whence came the flogging arm.

In effect, we are the dots’ ‘gods’.

And, if we try to imagine what a dot in this universe we have just created is capable of seeing it would be something such as the image below:

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A red dot, a blue house, a green house, a blue dot, a red house.

The way the dot sees its flat world is vastly different from the way we see it from above.

By applying the principle we just used with the dots, it is possible to imagine what four-dimensional beings may feel about us. They simply wouldn’t see the same picture. We don’t know what exactly they would see. They would see some pattern that we can’t even fathom.

Or can we?

It is possible the picture they would see would have different colors, high and low temperatures, order and chaos, busy life and inanimate stillness. However, similarly to our situation with the world of our dots, they would see much more than we can comprehend, albeit in a completely, maybe even undecipherable, way.

And this is exactly the way to approach Sean Scully’s work.

His patterns have the rhythmic order of a world governed by physics’ laws but the chaos of the paint inside the stripes makes life possible.

Scully’s order is beautiful because it is calming, predictable and quieting. Scully’s chaos is excitingly unpredictable because of the different energies it radiates. Somewhere within this, life is born and, at the same time, inanimate death is lurking somewhere near.

Inside his paintings exist elements, patterns, synergies, and rhythm – -everything we know about this world and exploring them raises the observer to another dimension.

It does not have to be an intellectual exercise (you don’t have to know physics to get a kick out of flying a hand glider), just approach them in a different way, as we approached the dots, and permit yourself (and his is the important part…allowing oneself), to revel in the sheer fun of being up there with the omnipotent gods, enjoying the patterns of this 3D universe.

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And while standing in front of some of his pieces note your own shadow walking thought the space of the picture, with the effect much like the one achieved by Gerhard Richter in his grey mirror paintings. 

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I inside a Sean Scully painting