REVIEW: VISUAL ARTS Sean Scully Manchester City Art Gallery; Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; The Kerlin Gallery, Dublin

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The Independent Culture
Sean Scully, whose work is currently the subject of two different but complementary exhibitions in Manchester museums, has, over the past 15 years, established himself as one of the best abstract painters around. He hasn't had a museum exhibition in this country since the one at the Whitechapel in 1989, but his striped and chequered paintings will be familiar to anyone who keeps half an eye on developments in British art.

Before the current exhibitions, his most recent show was of just two paintings and five prints grouped to mark the opening of the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London. It was a terrific exhibition, no less substantial for being small, which left one thinking that perhaps, with Scully, less is really more. There was a clarity and calm to the simple selection that helped to concentrate the mind.

In Manchester, the mood is very different. The paintings are hung down the street from the main City Galleries in a municipal annexe dominated by four enormous pillars. It ought to work well: they have covered the walls with white screens and the grey pillars neatly echo the vertical stripes in the paintings, but, somehow, even in a vast Victorian room, it feels cramped. There are only 19 paintings, dating from 1984 to 1997, yet even the small ones demand a lot of space and the biggest drop just too close to the distractions of an institutional carpet.

The paintings themselves are Scully's usual fare but, as always, they are more commanding, more complex and more beautiful, than one first expects - more about nuances of colour and tone and swings of mood than about stripes and squares, although of course stripes and squares is exactly what they are.

Since the late Eighties, he has cut holes in his pictures and inserted a smaller work into the larger: a painting within a painting (he calls them windows) breaking the structures and altering the rhythms. The most recent work in the show, Passage White White, is one of the most successful: a bleached-out zebra-crossing in the middle of a chess board, the black- and-white squares painted over layers of dusky pink with hints of blue and yellow glimmering in the white. Cool and sombre tones prevail throughout the selection: a preponderance of blues and browns and mustard yellows; melancholic colours, but tinged with hopeful oranges and unexpected reds.

In them all, the hand of the artist is undisguised, the sweep of a big brush loaded with paint left as evidence of the picture's making. One also senses Scully's physical presence at the Whitworth Art Gallery's Works on Paper retrospective, especially in his pastels where the colour has been pushed manually around the paper and worked into its surface with fingers and thumbs. These less familiar works have much the same feel as his paintings - meditative, yet charged with energy where the colours meet. Surprisingly for a painter best known for his monumental pictures, some of the most succinct of the works on paper are also the smallest, fluid, shifting little water-colour studies in stripes and bands - like an obscure republic trying out ideas for a new flag.

The Whitworth show has been touring the world and moves on to Dublin, Scully's birthplace, in September. Meanwhile, a third exhibition of new paintings, pastels and prints is at Dublin's Kerlin Gallery until Monday. Go see.

Manchester City Art Gallery (0161-236 5244); `Works on Paper', the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (0161-275 7450); New Work, The Kerlin Gallery, Anne's Lane, Dublin (00353 1 670 9093)