New Ground 

Artist Sean Sweeney's one-man show at VMFA puts him in rare company.

I spoke recently with a woman of a certain age who extolled the pleasures of a painting class she’d once taken at Virginia Commonwealth University. When asked if she was currently enrolled she said archly, “No, they don’t really do painting there anymore.”

Without challenging the validity of her retort, I'd wager she hasn't seen the work of Sean Sweeney, a 2012 graduate of VCU's painting and printmaking department. An exhibit of 14 impressive canvases by this young artist hangs at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In what amounts to an early career mini-retrospective, it follows Sweeney's thought trajectory and offers multiple rewards.

Sweeney proves he isn't shy and knows a thing or two about applying paint. And although abstract expressionism has been a dynamic approach to painting for decades, Sweeney brings originality and freshness to the field. In contrast, other works have smoother surfaces where Sweeney has combined digital and screen-printing techniques to reveal his takes on contemporary media and technology. So whether or not paint is laid on thickly, his works all explore layering, color relationships and tension between the canvas surface and what he's applied to it.

He makes historical references too. Sweeney's figurative "Partly Sunny," (2012, latex and spray paint on canvas) reminds me of a 1963 painting in the museum's permanent collection, "Triple Elvis" by Andy Warhol. The pop artist's black and white work captures Presley as he pulls out a pistol from his holster. In "Partly Sunny," Sweeney borrows a popular image — not from movies but from print — a page of a Fayetteville, N.C., newspaper, a nod to popular media.

But the nonfigurative works in a series of pieces suggest to me another Warhol story. In the early 1960s, Richmonders Sydney and Frances A. Lewis were building their impressive collection of midcentury American art. Often they traded merchandise — jewelry, small appliances and cameras — from their Best Products catalog showroom company for art. One day while awaiting Warhol's arrival in a conference room of his storied "factory" in Manhattan, they noticed the focus on the television was askew (the set was from Best). While Sydney fumbled with the vertical hold, Warhol entered and said: "Mr. Lewis, we keep it that way. It's much more interesting."

Similarly, Sweeney isn't interested in sharp focus but the edges of digital imagery. Six rectangular, white canvases each has been covered with varying degrees of black stripes. The titles however, wryly suggest color: "Yellow," "Cyan" and "Magenta."

This black and white series builds up to Sweeney's showpieces, "Stately Shape #1," "Stately Shape #2" and "Stately Shape #3," respectively. These brightly colored works (latex and spray paint on canvas) each contain one tightly configured, irregularly vertical shape. Within this form Sweeney has applied overlays of brilliant color and then scraped, picked and removed small areas of the surface until rich, jewellike tones explode. This process is as primitive as prehistoric wall scratches, but the painterly aspect is magnificent.

The exhibit sprawls across three areas in the museum's Pauley Center. While one of the spaces is lighted too dimly and another is a bit narrow for the work, the viewing experience isn't diminished. Sweeney's work is original and strong, but accessible because it's tethered to rich traditions.

How did Sweeney land a one-man show at VMFA — even if his work is top-notch? He's the recipient of a graduate studies grant from the museum's fellowship program. Since 1940 it has awarded almost $5 million in private support to more than 1,200 Virginians. Sweeney, who's studying at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, also received an undergraduate fellowship while at VCU. This dual recognition has gone to a number of other Virginia talents as well, including the late painter Cy Twombly and more recently, Vince Gilligan, the L.C. Bird High School and New York University graduate who conceived and wrote the Emmy Award-winning series "Breaking Bad."

Sean Sweeney's exhibition is part of the museum's long tradition of supporting contemporary work, but like Twombly, Gilligan and other talented Virginians, he's staking out his own territory. S


"Recent Work: Sean Sweeney" runs until Nov. 17 at the VMFA, recognizing the artist's 2013 visual arts fellowship. "To Each Their Own," showing recipient Amanda Baldwin's work runs to Nov. 3. Applications for next year's undergraduate, graduate and professional fellowships are due Nov. 8.


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