When Hurricane Irene's rains hit Richmond, they caused a minor leak where the newly installed Sean Scully painting was hanging and so it was temporarily removed. Today, I went to check on it and found it returned to the wall. I spent about 20 minutes looking at it and felt the time fly by.
I think it's important to have more conversations about what we think about when we look at art. What actually goes through your mind? I have a suspicion that a lot of folks project a great deal onto the work without letting it impact them too greatly. I also suspect that when I see or hear people get frustrated with a piece, that's them just beginning to allow the piece of art into their consciousness. You can look at a painting and get a sense that it's really offering something to you but maybe you try to put that emotion into words too quickly and it shuts down. And you get angry. I bring all of this up because I have had some trouble talking off the cuff about art despite my studies. And because I see such a disconnect between the people I know who have studied art (or who know someone closely who has) and people who have not.
It's like a language barrier. I find it so frustrating! Not against anyone, but frustrating due to my own inability to communicate the gravity of what I'm looking at. Paintings like the one I looked at today are....like an escape hatch to a place where you can look back out at the world, so not exactly escaping....but...see? Stupid, words. In other words, it would make sense to me if Sean Scully and other contemporary artists were revered in a more populist way. I imagined running out behind the art museum to the first person I saw, grabbing their hand and saying, "Come quickly, you have to see this". Not just because that would be hilarious, but because really, it deserves this kind of treatment.
But I've gotten off-track. Here's my best to describe what went through my head while looking at the monumental Sean Scully painting. Not because I am enlightened in any way but as an act of disclosure:
Giant painting! Then I noticed the triptych format, all three butted together. There are some weird spatial things happening at the top and bottom of the middle piece. They recede. I thought about the word, "impasse". Then I thought about the sky and landscapes. And how the top part could easily stand as it's own as a muted horizon. An American landscape of a distant sleepy town. I noticed the scale of the brush marks. All about 3". How he worked back into colors so there was a glowing effect to some parts. Especially the "white/grey" set. Then I thought about yellow ochre and how it does something very peculiar to me. Grounded, energetic, satiated. I thought about the three parts and how they had different temperaments and how if my mom were there I'd ask her which one reflected the most how she felt. I decided the right one was most like me at the moment. There was a lot of vertical pressure at the top. I imagined the middle piece as a stage persona. And the different expressions of black, some very bluish and I got lost in those for a while. Then I focused on this weird brushstroke in the middle of the painting and another in the upper right. How did that mark get made??? Then they receded. Some people walked in and I got self-conscious. I spent a lot of time finding groupings and patterns and letting them wash over me. And kept returning to the glowing blue around some of the stripes. I felt a certain intimidation from the red and black stripes in the very middle (stage persona) and noticed how they seemed figurative or at least sculptural. I thought about signs and why those longer thinner stripes seemed to signify a passage of some kind. The vertical ones and the horizontal ones would mean passage through different aspects, like one for time and one for space. I inwardly rolled my eyes at myself for thinking that way. I feel a connection to whoever created this- I feel so relieved to see the evidence not only of the hand but of a brain working around this space in the same way. Just moving around the space, considering color, considering marks. Painting reflects the world in a way that's neither high nor low. I imagined being surrounded by an encompassing wall of Sean Scully painting. Then I reminded myself that's not what I'm looking at, THIS is what the artist gave me. THIS is what I'm looking at. I couldn't stop thinking about the word "abutment". Because that was one thing that seemed to carry a great deal of meaning but I couldn't put into words why. I didn't really like any of the answers I could come up with. They seemed too definite. Too located. Too separate from the painting, such as: the sudden dramatic change of form and mark evokes the kind manner in which change affects our own lives. Barf, I thought. But still it is meaningful despite my inability to build a sentence around it. Don't push so hard. Just keep looking. Despite my reminder to myself, I thought about faith and how in abstraction there is so often this density, this 'hahaha' fluctuation of foreground and background. Faith, in the sense you know the answer to everything is probably right there but you can never quite reach it. A deliberate withholding. Every so often I would just become overwhelmed by the overall presence of the piece again but I could never hold onto that idea for very long. It was almost an animal or hormonal feeling, like I got startled by it all over again. I let it wash over me for a moment longer and then left.
There are dozens of fragmentary thoughts stuck in there too like: tapestry, earthiness, ground, sense of flight but stable- what the hell, passing through or looking down??, prison bars, contained but not trapped, and on and on.
That's all. Just do it! I suggest everyone go find a painting that makes you raise an eyebrow and spend at least 20 minutes looking at it.