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WHEN: Through April 2
WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Delaware Ave.
TICKETS: $4, $3 seniors/students, under 12 free
INFO: 882-8700

Looking at the earliest Sean Scully pieces in this exhibition of works on paper is a very damped-down emotional experience. You don't so much look at these tiny, dark-toned paintings from the 1970s as wait -- like a visual seismograph -- for the first small tremor to occur.

And occur it does. If you're really paying attention, you might perceive a whole series of lovely little tremors emanating from this ensemble of narrow, interwoven stripes.

The slightest color differentiation -- a shift from warm to cool violet -- is enough to separate parts of a composition. The incidental relief caused by stripe crossing over stripe begins to animate the entire surface. (In these minimalist works the artist used strips of masking tape to create this basket-weave effect.)

But no galvanizing jolt comes. These are works that hang at the edges of perception, teasing out small feelings one increment at a time.

Then somewhere around 1980 the cataclysm happens. Abruptly the neat stripes of Scully's drawings begin to tip and bend and the once clean-edged lines go jagged. In a charcoal study from 1981 the artist jabs crudely at the paper, letting a rough series of broken marks form the lines. New blocky forms appear in this drawing, none of which can quite manage to stand straight and square. Scully is no longer working the edges of perception. Scully the minimalist is now Scully the expressionist. He will keep his stripes, but they will now be in the service of full-blown emotion.

It is an amazing transformation.

Scully, an American artist born in Ireland, adheres to the old modernist values that see formal abstraction as a potent vehicle for the expression of a full spectrum of human feeling. His works don't change much in terms of form -- every image is a variation on a grid or stripe pattern -- but each piece charts out its own distinct expressive territory.

The mood of these works on paper -- like his better known paintings -- is often dark and brooding.

In "Durango" (1993), blackish, rough-hewn bars press against one another like some kind of out-of-whack post and lintel system. The sense of weight misplaced is so strong that the whole structure seems to barely hold itself together. There is something ominous about it, something dangerous. The feeling is augmented by what seems like a dirty subterranean light filtering into the heavy, off-white areas between the black beams.

Often enough Scully presents a "figure" -- a smaller and clearly separate boxlike form with contrasting color or form within -- set "in front" of a larger pattern.

An example can be seen in "Munich" (1996), a big pastel with an ingratiating ungainliness. The sheet is filled edge to edge by a fuzzy black and white checkerboard. An upright rectangle, divided horizontally with alternating red and orange stripes, rudely pushes into the picture at such an awkward spot that the checkerboard looks uncomfortably incomplete or lopsided. Scully prefers things that don't quite fit, the casual misalignment, a meeting of colors that gives a slight jolt to the senses. It is his monumental awkwardness that gives this powerful group of works on paper its great sense of drama, the feeling we are witnessing a colossal event that just might shake the earth to its core.

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