As parents know, a child’s favorite story often gets told again and again, the narrator making little changes to keep the young listener alert. That dance of repetition and variation within a rhythmically incremental narrative is one of the foundational structures of children’s stories. Artist Sean Scully quickly figured this out when, in 2014, he began telling his five-year-old son, Oisin, an improvised story. Played out over months, that bedtime ritual became increasingly elaborate. This serves as the background to the exhibition Sean Scully: Jack the Wolf at Cheim & Read. Jack the Wolf lives near a town famed for its chocolate. One day he meets Rebecca Rabbit. Out of that Scully and his son spin a captivating tale.
Along with the 42 works for the children’s book Jack the Wolf (Callaway Books, 2023), the exhibition includes three paintings on different surfaces (linen, copper, and aluminum) and one sculpture, “Felt Stack 1” (2020), made of felt and colored aluminum slabs. But for me the heart of the show was the set of drawings done by Scully and Oisin in watercolor, ink, marker, and pencil, dated between 2014 and ’23. At a certain point, it did not matter who did what, which added to their charm. Not having read the story until after I saw the show, I was also struck by the good-natured and quirky humor. Jack stretches on his couch and reads a newspaper called Howl while Rebecca peruses the pages of Hop. On the wall above Jack’s couch are portraits of his mom and dad. It is details like these that keep the story lively and, in places, unexpected. It is evident from the story that Scully took the challenge of making it new quite seriously, which I suspected even before I read it.
What makes the drawings work is the humor intertwined with a fantastical story about a chocolate-craving wolf with a big heart, a rational rabbit, and townspeople who are mad at their children for stealing dessert. There are worse things than a children’s book that takes itself too seriously, but perhaps not to a child who wants to be entertained before falling asleep. For those who know Scully’s work and read the story, there is at least one bonus: In one of the drawings dated 2015 (all are titled “Jack the Wolf”), Jack opens the door of a house that looks an awful lot like one of Scully’s paintings. By introducing his motifs into a children’s story, and avoiding any sense of self-importance, Scully reveals another side of himself. It is a side of artists of we see too little in a world that keeps placing them on pedestals, where some think they belong.
Sean Scully: Jack the Wolf continues at Cheim & Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.