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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  A Few Clouds
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After a first look, abstract Sean Scully paintings at Chazen don't resonate
Sudden impact
<i>Cut Ground Blue Pink Red</i>, 2011.
Cut Ground Blue Pink Red, 2011.

Abstract art is a funny thing: Sometimes it can be transcendent, and sometimes it leaves me cold. In the transcendent camp, I'd include the Chazen Museum of Art's Helen Frankenthaler painting Pistachio (1971). There's something about the delicate washes of green, golden yellow, blue and pinky-red that I find both comforting and engaging.

My reaction to the Chazen's exhibition of recent paintings by Sean Scully falls somewhere in the middle. While the show has instant appeal, it doesn't leave me with the kind of lasting resonance I get from the Frankenthaler.

The show is installed as the first offering in the Chazen's lovely new space for temporary exhibitions. Just off the glassed-in lobby of the new wing, these galleries are gorgeous: warm wooden floors and ceilings, extra-high walls that permit large artwork to be displayed, and clever, shutter-like panels that allow natural light into the gallery and a view onto the street.

Scully, 66, is a Dublin-born, London-raised abstract painter of global acclaim. (Clearly, I'm in the minority with my lukewarm response to his work.) Twice nominated for Britain's prestigious Turner Prize, Scully is represented in major museum collections around the world. The Chazen has acquired one painting from this exhibition for its own permanent collection.

My issue with Scully's work is not its initial impression: At first sight, his massive paintings with bold bands of color are certainly gripping. The ones done in shiny oil paint thickly applied to metal surfaces have an almost automotive quality. Non-primary colors like muddy browns, ochres and mauves are his favored hues.

The large oil paintings are supplemented by much smaller watercolors in the same vein: stripes or blocks of color in a variety of configurations. Scully's sources of inspiration include Moroccan kilim rugs, robes and tents made of wool and canvas strips.

While Scully's paintings generate instant impact, they also suffer from the classic you've-seen-one-you've-seen-them-all problem. Simply put, his work operates in too narrow a range.

Scully's artist statement proclaims his interest in relationships and the sensual, erotic elements of painting. "There's no certainties in my paintings," he has said elsewhere. But isn't that the position of all abstraction?

Of course, none of this is to say that Scully is a poor choice for a Chazen exhibition - quite the contrary. It's a worthwhile chance to see a leading name in contemporary art. While I find its surface appeal lacks deeper meaning, I have no doubt many will love it.

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