Staring at art from the Tate's collection and thinking about it

Sunday, 13 January 2013

#1 - Sean Scully

Sean Scully, #1, 1991, aquatint on paper, 117 x 174 mm, Tate.

I've never really got on with Sean Scully's work.  It always seemed to me a bit of a late rehash of modernist giants like Rothko and Mondrian, but small and craftsy, rather than epic and monumental.  Of course, not liking something because of what it's not is a miserable reason to dismiss it, and there's a fair bit of Scully coming up, so I may well end up liking him.

This is the first of a series of works made for a limited edition of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  It is an aquatint, which is a printmaking technique that involves a paddling pool and a full set of scuba-diving equipment.

Although it's an abstract image, the fact that it's designed to accompany a novel suggests that we could read it either as in some way representing a location or moment in the story, or the movement through time and space that occurs within it.  I haven't actually read Heart of Darkness, but I'm guessing it's just Apocalypse Now, but more boring because it's olden days and no one's got any Doors tapes.  There's a river in it though, right?  So, on a basic, thick-person's literal reading of an obviously abstract image, we could say that the black and white stripes on the left are one bank, the orange and black ones on the right are the another, and the reddish-brown and black ones represent the river itself.  Of course, this doesn't work, because you would need the stripes on both banks to be going the same way, and they don't.  If anything, the middle stripe is more like a bridge between two waterways moving in different directions.  Which doesn't make sense either.  But do we get a sense of currents, of water meeting land, and a change in movement when switching from one to another?  Yeah, I think we do.

Stupid thought.  Nearly all Sean Scully pictures look like Licorice Allsorts.  Does he know this?  He must do, surely, as he grew up in the UK.  Which means he just doesn't care, I guess.  I look forward to his late 'Curly Wurly' period.

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