«Lecture by Sean Scully on the occasion of the Inauguration of The Wall of Light at The University of Limerick 14 October 2003 I am going to plunge ...»
THIS IS A TRANSCRIPT OF THE LECTURE GIVEN BY SEAN SCULLY AT
THE FORMAL OPENING OF THE “WALL OF LIGHT” SCULPTURE AT THE
UNIVERSITY OF LIMERICK. THESE NOTES ARE TAKEN FROM A VIDEO
OF THE LECTURE. THEY DO NOT REFELCT THE IDEAS OR ATTITUDES
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF LIMERICK. REFERENCES TO ARTISTS, CRITICS
AND CURATORS ARE MADE BY THE ARTIST. THESE NOTES CANNOT BE
REPRODUCED IN THIS FORMAT. COPYRIGHT OF THE CONTENT OF THE
LECTURE RESTS WITH THE ARTIST.Lecture by Sean Scully on the occasion of the Inauguration of The Wall of Light at The University of Limerick 14 October 2003 I am going to plunge right in. I must apologize in advance as this is not an art course for beginners; if it were I would be happy to tell you how much you owe me. We do not have much time, so please forgive me and please try in some way to enjoy the ride.
On the left is Giacometti, if not the greatest sculptor of the twentieth century in the top five greatest sculptors of the century -- obviously Italian. He made figures out of bronze and plaster, was a very obsessive artist like myself --not a particularly experimental artist, but an artist like another favorite of mine, Georgio Oretti, who experimented with the major modernist themes that began at the beginning of the twentieth century (such as Surrealism, Cubism and so on). He eventually ended up making his own obsessive figures that stand like ragged sentinels facing time and all the elements of nature and human history that are thrown at them. So they represent, in a sense, what remains.
On the right is a hut from the Aran Islands, Inis Meáin, a photograph taken by myself. I have been encouraged to lately assume the vanity of a photographer, and this photograph is in a book published very recently of my photographs. It also represents, in a sense, what remains. It’s a hostile environment, as you all know. Most people here being Irish, you will know about how the earth is made and how it is taken for granted. I won’t bore you with that. But the issue of the wall on the Aran Island is of paramount importance.
This is a hut for either staying in or keeping things in. It has a similar stoic personality to the sculpture on the left, which is of course an artwork and therefore much more strangely expressive. This is a functional object. However, in the walls of Aran you will notice that each wall has its own personality and was made -- made, in a sense, like a mountain, more vertical, more geometric, more round, more small, and so on. The wall itself is a question of placing stones so they don’t come apart, using gravity to withstand the wind. Both of them in a way express a kind of loneliness. Both of them are in a sense a testament to what remains, even though one is art and the other is not particularly art.
Now, returning to my work, I’ll show you a very important painting on the left called Backs and Fronts. I must say upfront, even though some of you less informed people in the audience may have trouble with this: my work is basically figurative. I was initially a figurative painter, a painter and drawer of figures in space, and I can do this with some degree of confidence. However, I was very much influenced by the mysticism of Eastern religions, of Islam, of Northern artworks, of the kind of artwork that comes from Finland, where the Japanese walked across ice to get to America. There are a lot of correspondences in the world that involve a kind of linear but emotional geometrical art not the kind of art that one associates with Western ideas of ordering. So therefore the brick in these cultures does not represent a form of domination in nature; it represents a kind of hypnotic rhythm. I tried to bring this into relationship with, say, Alaska or Rembrandt or whoever, this Western idea of the human touch. This is a picture made up of panels. Each panel has a weight, a size, a height, a figure, and they are meant to form a line -- hence the title, Backs and Fronts.
The work on the right is painted with a kind of surface we associate with our art, Western art. Our art and our touch try to somehow express light. This is obviously somehow related to a kind of religious aspiration. This is the kind of art I am interested in. I put these things out like doors. In fact, I got the idea from two things. One was a door, halfopened and half-closed. I am very, very interested in the metaphor of the door and the threshold and how one space is divided and opened by the simple mechanism of the door.
I find doors fascinating, the way they lead from one reality to another reality. By one reality I mean a room where space can be set up as whatever -- a hospital, a lecture room, a workshop. These panels project up the wall a little bit like double-sided drawings in a museum, where an artist’s major drawings are on both sides of a piece of paper; and the only way to really exhibit this work is to have it at a right angle from the wall so you can see both sides. I love the idea of walking around looking at an artwork, looking at the fact that it’s a painting. So I am talking about these works really to set the tone this evening for the subject of sculpture -- and to show that my work is in a sense very adaptable to the idea of sculpture.
On the left are separate panels bolted together and painted differently. You can’t see it from the slide, of course; you would need to walk from one end to another. It has again the relationship with the decorative, although it is not decoration. It has a relationship with the exotic and the rhythm that one finds in African art, Islamic art, Japanese art, Indian art, Mexican art -- I like it all. Of course the rhythm is linear, repetitive of Irish music, which is part of the story. The painting on the left is called Come In; the one on the right is called Murphy. The paintings are in some way a homage -- to Beckett on the right and on the left to Joyce. Now I have the opportunity to tell you a story which is funny, interesting, and not a little sad at the end, but I know you will like it. This painting here, like a lot of mine I made in the eighties, is made up of a panel project, and what I was doing in a sense is painting around corners, trying to hold together what is coming apart. So the idea of the painting was to try to wrap these disparate parts in a skin that was poetic, emotional and in a way healing. They are painted very expressively;
they have a lot of light in them, and obviously the colors are quite beautiful. They are heavily layered paintings referred to as pole tradition in European painting. When I painted Come In, I had a very important curator come to my studio to look at my work, and she carried with her all the rational baggage of a European curator with New York curatorial expertise. The reason I called this painting Come In is because when I finished it I called a friend of mine to come and see it. (This part is drawn, by the way, and this part is painted. So it’s about weight and lightness. Again it relates very much to the figure, to the body in art.) My friend came over and told me a very interesting story about Joyce and Beckett. Someone knocked on the door and Joyce said, “Come in.” The next day Joyce was going over the manuscript, and Beckett had written “come in.” Joyce asked Beckett why he had written “come in.” Beckett replied, “You said ‘come in,’ so I wrote it down.” It was a fascinating conversation, and in the end Joyce left it in, as an intervention. As you will see from my paintings, I am very interested in the idea of intervention -- things coming in from the top, the sides, bursting through the surface, violating the sanctity of the painted picture surface. I am extremely interested in intervention of all kinds, so naturally I took this as the title for the painting, this irrational title. The curator then said, “Ah yes, I understand why you called this Come In. Because it is like a portal and a doorway. This is the doorway and this could be two columns; this could be an entrance, so one could call and come in.” I said, “Yes, that’s certainly one way of looking at it.” Then I told her the story. When I got to the end I knew that she would never show my work because she thought that I was crazy and that these were not rational paintings. This brings me to a very interesting point. The difference between my paintings and a lot of people that were around me in New York is that my paintings are not rational. I am using geometry for emotional results, to provoke emotion for mystical reasons.
I had another curator come from Boston during the time I was making these paintings, and he said to me that my works were perverse, that I was misusing the tradition of geometric abstraction that was, of course, invented to accompany the Russian revolution.
It was meant to represent order and I was using it perversely. He, of course, did not buy one of my paintings. These have been some of the difficulties that I have had in America.
So again, this is a great weight pressing down on solid bands painted in rich, very confident colors -- in black and yellow and pressing down on something much more fragile.
The painting on the left is called Africa. The painting was painted in a Victorian bedroom in England, which illustrates that location is not really an issue. I don’t need to go to Africa to make a painting or picture. It’s not really a picture; it’s really, in a sense, an attempt to embody something. What I wanted to do in this painting was to make a massive wall, eight-feet tall and twelve-feet wide, with a window in it. Windows occur in my paintings a lot; they happen in the wall we just built. The window is a way of puncturing the relentlessness of the façade. Another thing I do is make paintings with extremely complicated colors that represent different kinds of memories or provoke different kinds of light -- different light sources, different color sources that one might sense in one’s memory, or in nature, or in paintings one might have seen. There is always a dullness to my colors, a sadness to the light in my work. In this particular painting, Africa, it is dry; it is the same color as the dirt of the earth. Oil-paper is made from dirt, more or less. The wall outside is made from dirt, the dirt that we walk around on. It’s the same material re-jigged and then presented as poetry. This painting Africa is made up with many, many layers of color and was painted very heavily -- almost brutally
-- like a lot of the paintings in the eighties. The window is much more delicate and expressive and has of course another possibility, the possibility of light and hope in this wall of darkness.
These two paintings are again, in their own ways, two paintings about insets. The painting on the left is called Angelica. Here, the inset comes in from the top and the paint was removed to leave a gap. I did a whole series of paintings that were done on the idea of weightlessness. The others I called Angel, Angelina and Angelica. Hanging on the right is a painting called Catherine (1994). One can see it as a wall with two windows or one can see it as a floor with two other figures on it. What is very important about paintings from this period is that the insets are real. So the paint is painted with certain urgency -- as in the paintings of Van Gogh or an
Expressionist -- but it is also a model of love, love with the fact of concrete painting. So these are real windows and they are taken out of the painting. In one way it’s a romantic painting, and in another it’s a little vandalized by the fact that it’s got a kind of brute inset going on inside of it. In a lot of my painting there is oscillation between the ugly and the brutal, the confrontational and the romantic and the poetic. The problem I have with the romantic and the poetic is that if it’s not checked, if it’s not put into the same kind of critical correspondence with another impulse, it becomes the sentimental. And then of course we don’t like it anymore because we don’t respect it. So this painting on the left is really a question of skin and the absence of skin. In the inset the skin of the paint is taken away, so it has a much more fragile sense of its own body; it hangs precariously in the main body of the painting. What keeps it together as a painting, of course, is our idea of a painting as a rectangle. Theses two things give out two very different sensations. When the inset is surrounded by the painting it’s much more secured; it’s as if the painting has become a protector of the inset.
So on the left is Four Large Mirrors, one of my major works; it is in a museum in Düsseldorf. It was in my retrospective but now it’s part of their collection. A huge work and another theme -- the idea of reflection, which is a way to measure a way of looking at identity. The first is called Narcissus of course: the idea of looking at oneself or looking at one another on a kind of structure, or being reflected by another, to reveal more of one side, questioning the other, or separating and joining from each other -- constantly a process of joining and separation, which is central to my work. It’s very unusual for me to make a surface and leave the surface. I’m always putting something in correspondence with something else to set this vibration up between identities.
You have an orchestra here: it’s complicated by the fact it’s repeated four times. We have four within one work so it makes something almost endless. It becomes exuberant.
All the reds are different, all the yellows are different, all the creams are different. The browns and blacks are not simply painted over various colors; the shadow-memory of those colors is subverting everything like background noise. These are cut separations.
Land Lying Blue takes from the idea of the horizon. One might say it is abstract; it has strong associations with nature, like the color of the rhythm of the horizon. In my talking and thinking I am constantly making reference to the horizon line, the mysticism of the horizon line.