If you are claustrophobic, beware: I would not recommend going to the Phillips Collection’s new exhibit “Sean Scully: Wall of Light.” The first half of the exhibition, comprised of Scully’s early abstract paintings, is quite nice to look at but the second half – the actual “Wall of Light” series – is like walking through a cement block corridor, albeit a very colorful one. The enormous canvases cover large portions of the walls in the gallery and look terrifyingly similar, like an inescapable labyrinth.
My initial reaction on seeing the first two paintings of “Wall of Light” was amazement at the size of these mammoth works. However, as I walked through the rest of the gallery I found myself becoming bored and increasingly unimpressed with the paintings because I knew that what I was about to see was just a slightly different version of what I had already seen. Each canvas, varying in some aspects such as size and color scheme, is almost the exact same combination of alternating patches of two or three vertical and horizontal rectangles. That’s it.
My wandering mind prompted me to ask the question: What is the difference between an artist having a signature style and just simple, monotonous repetition? It is possible to see Scully’s work as being nothing more than the same recurring basket weave pattern and view the artist as a sell-out who found an easy way to be recognizable in the competitive art world and make tons of money.
However, the more I thought about the artist’s reasons behind his particular style, I surprisingly found myself defending him. It is also possible to commend the artist for forcing the viewer to find beauty and intrigue in the mundane, namely a brick wall.
Therefore, the closer we look at the paintings separately, the more we can see what individualizes all the paintings. All together, within the context of the exhibition, the walls are formidable; however, on their own they can have a very different feeling. The unique colors Scully uses are the result of layering many coats of paint on top of each other, usually starting out with lighter colors, and builds up layers of darker pigment. This process is evident if you look between the “bricks” of the wall to see all the fabulous colors Scully has covered up. Here is where the element of intrigue is brought into the otherwise tedious paintings: They make you wonder, what is behind that wall?
Remembering that Scully belongs to the school of Abstract Expressionism, with other artists such as Jackson Pollock and Rothko, who had equally as unique styles that they rarely strayed from for most of their careers, these works are not about what the paint on the canvas is meant to represent, but rather how the paint on the canvas makes the viewer feel. For example, the paintings made me feel bored and confused, but even that’s a perfectly acceptable reaction simply because it was a reaction. Like Scully’s paintings, emotions are layered and are often more complex we can recognize at first glance.
“Sean Scully: Wall of Light” will be at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. N.W. until Jan. 8. Admission is $7 for students. Go to the www.phillipscollection.org for special lecture dates and times.