Irish-American abstract artist and two-time nominee for the prestigious Turner Prize, Sean Scully has steadily been rising to fame in China’s booming art scene. Following the unrivalled success of his Shanghai, Beijing and Nanjing shows in the last year, the artist’s latest exhibition “Resistance and Persistence” is due to continue touring around China to Guangzhou and Wuhan. His 2015 Beijing show “Follow The Heart” was voted as the number one exhibition of the year, whilst a Beijing newspaper praised his show in the Chinese capital as the most influential exhibition since Robert Rauschenberg’s “ROCI CHINA” in the 1980’s. The New York-based artist is thrilled by this, and captivated by the scale of China’s emerging art scene. Scully expressed in a BBC interview his awe for the numerous art districts that have sprung up outside of Chinese cities, as well as the sheer space and potential of places like the 798 Art District and Caochangdi in the Beijing area—‘They’ve got more galleries in Beijing than there are in Chelsea in New York City!’ he says.
“Resistance and Persistence” showcases over fifty of Scully’s works dating from the 1960’s to the present. The exhibition devotes itself to his works on paper, most of which feature the solid-colored layers of blocks and stripes that are characteristic of his oeuvre. Throughout the exhibition, his minimalist compositions change in color and tone; his earlier works from the years following the death of his son harbor much darker and colder tones, whereas his more recent works appear to have a brighter disposition. Featured in the exhibition is also his colossal sculpture China Piled Up, which consists of eighty-three steel frames of different sizes arranged to create a structure that is imposing, yet delicate, alluding to the blocked, striped compositions of his paintings. The scope of the show is remarkable, but perhaps more impressive is the show’s focus on Scully’s involvement with abstraction as a movement within the Western Art world—something Chinese audiences have seldom been exposed to, at least to this extent.
A new generation of art enthusiasts in China have allowed Scully’s works to flourish within a market that is still dominated by Chinese artists and more traditional art forms. This is a result of his style—his art while abstract, is hardly (if at all) political, unlike the art of his former student at Parsons, Ai Weiwei. There is something universal about Scully’s work; it is a language of forms and colors that everyone can interpret in their own way. Scully’s abstraction leaves viewers the freedom to experience his artworks in whichever way they desire, be it melancholic, exciting or purely aesthetic. Scully himself claims his abstraction has never been ‘theory based’, let alone politically motivated. He describes his works as ‘experiential’, and it is this that makes his work such a success among this new following. Perhaps another aspect to consider in accounting for Scully’s popularity in China is the fact that abstract work, in comparison to more figurative work, is harder to censor. Whilst Scully plays down the severity of Chinese censorship, this issue cannot be fully excluded.
“Resistance and Persistence” will be shown at the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou until the 9th of October 2016, and will then move to the Hubei Museum of Art in Wuhan from the 10th of January running through to the 12th of March 2017.