An Initial Reaction to Sean McCann’s Journey through Landscape

While Liverpool has its somewhat predictable David Hockney retrospective show, across the Mersey, Birkenhead can boast an exhibition to be remembered and revisited.

Sean McCann, an accomplished painter whose work has previously appeared in a number of exhibitions in Britain and Ireland, is not waiting to be discovered. But I, for one, have made a discovery and at the risk of proving right the Goncourt brothers -- who remarked in the mid-nineteenth century that the object that is perhaps subjected to the greatest number of inanities is a painting in a gallery -- here are my impressions.

When I stumbled upon Sean McCann’s show Journey through Landscape (at the Williamson Art Gallery, Slatey Road, Birkenhead, UK until 24 November 2013) it was like encountering an oasis in a Merseyside week of disappointment: a flat Liverpool Playhouse adaptation of 1984 unalleviated by a superfluous light show, the Unity Theatre’s Chelsea Hotel whose interesting choreography smothered a story that never got told, and not least the Walker Art Gallery’s rebarbative Hockney show. Indeed, McCann’s show easily outshines the latter in which the world-renowned artist’s recent and belated rediscovery of landscape painting (albeit electronic notepad-aided) is not even broached. In contrast, the 53 paintings constituting Sean McCann’s show are anchored in a painterly discourse resounding with echoes of a century and a half of European and North American landscape painting from Pissarro down to Bomberg; and here there is a tangible lineage since McCann’s own teacher himself studied with Bomberg. But whereas Bomberg represented the gold- and crimson-hued landscape of the Mediterranean south, McCann captures both dramatic and stiller moments of his native Ireland's, of Scotland’s and England’s mountains, lakes and forests, and also of vaster scenes witnessed in North America.

Accompanying McCann on his journey involves moving around the British Isles and Canada through the four seasons, across azure skies and dark troubled horizons, encountering clouds, sometimes sunlit, sometimes moonlit and disturbing. Indeed, I have only seen the like of McCann’s ability to represent light on canvas in the painting of the magnificent Turner and in that of the contemporary painter Mike Knowles, another inheritor of the Bombergian vision. But there is a second journey one takes while looking at McCann’s landscapes, a voyage recalling the images of canvasses and galleries stored in one’s mind, when visual allusions to the wealthy catalogue of European landscapes hover before the eyes. But then these hesitant traces of a painterly tradition dissipate and cannot be fixed, for McCann’s artistry ultimately resides in a painterly intertextuality in which conscious, and maybe sub-conscious, evocations of past masters are interwoven with freshly seen and keenly observed new landscapes, the whole perceived through McCann’s own particular visual grid.

It is literally a shame that this show has not been better publicized. There have been no flyers, indeed no mention of McCann’s exhibition in Merseyside’s national galleries, and an invitation to eat lunch in the Williamson’s cafeteria appears on a billboard before the gallery’s main door where McCann’s exhibition poster might be expected. It is doubly a shame since the Williamson gallery provides a choice exhibition space on Merseyside; its large, light rooms doing great justice to McCann’s, mostly, large landscapes. 

Gregory Lee

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