Sean Scully

Watch an online exhibition from the acclaimed artist's major retrospective at the Ulster Museum

Three years is a long time in the life of a city, and since the Ulster Museum closed for renovation in 2006, a plethora of new art galleries, both public and private, have sprung up in all corners of Belfast. With so much on offer for the discerning art lover, therefore, the folks at the Ulster Museum were no doubt under pressure to turn heads with a grand reopening exhibition.

The refurbished gallery space in the museum was perhaps worth the wait, but what of Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed: The Imagery of Sean Scully? It is an exhibition not to everyone's taste; a brave move sure to mystify, frustrate and delight in equal measure.

'Barcelona 10.3.98'There is no sign of the museum's extensive art collection in any of the four separate gallery rooms. Instead the entire gallery is dedicated, temporarily at least, to the abstract grid and block paintings of Sean Scully, an artist with a reputation - and perhaps an ego - big enough to justify the headline slot.

The exhibition charts the artist’s career from his early grid paintings of the 1970s, through variations on the expansive and sensuously painted Wall of Light series that were shown to international acclaim at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006. It also includes recent new work and will run until February 14, 2010.

The exhibition has already caused some controversy in the local press, and Scully's work will surely baffle a section of the museum-going public who may have pined for a touch of the pastoral from the museum's archives. In the end, however, Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed - the first major Scully retrospective of its kind - has already done its job. People are talking about it. Better that than not.

During a walk around the exhibition with Scully himself, Tim Cooke, CEO of National Museums Northern Ireland, said that the retrospective signalled the Ulster Museum’s ambitions to host landmark international shows and to establish Belfast as a leading venue for outstanding art.

'The work of Sean Scully is recognised across the globe,' commented Cooke. 'The power of his individual paintings can be overwhelming. Imagine the impact of around 80 works thoughtfully displayed through a suite of galleries.'

Although Scully is claimed as an Irish artist, the link is somewhat tenuous. He left Dublin at age four. Thereafter he lived the formative part of his life in London, eventually becoming an American citizen in the 1980s.

Some have criticised his language as unnecessarily intellectual. So what does Scully himself say of this retrospective?

'To send an important exhibition to Belfast is so important for me because Belfast is so important. And its importance is intrinsically connected to its historical position as an example of what is possible in human politics. Belfast is in an historical position to represent and be an example and a model for future metropolises.

'I have had a painting in the Ulster Museum since 1974 and it has been regularly exhibited. So, to some 'Beckett'degree, it has silently witnessed the monumental passage of pain and progress that have painted the recent history of Belfast. Many of my paintings are made by combining the seemingly difficult or irreconcilable, or by cutting and then rejoining to make another kind of beauty that is not based on classic ideas of harmony. And many future cities will be made this way.

'The symbolic importance of art as a bridge between rigid positions is embedded in my work. One might say that art is the opposite of war. In my work the subject of light is omnipresent. Light in our history, being deeply associated with illumination and with the unique human quality of being able to imagine a flexible future.'

Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed: The Imagery of Sean Scully, accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, has been organised in conjunction with the MKM – Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art, Duisburg, Germany and was curated by Susanne Kleine.

Lee Henry