Sean Earley Remembering Sean Earley

Sean Earley (1953–1992) was born in New Orleans and raised in Hurst, Texas. After studying at the University of Texas at Arlington and exhibiting in Dallas at galleries such as 500X, he moved to New York to pursue painting, making a living as an illustrator on the side. Earley went on to attain a residency at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy, and gallery representation at Bridgewater Gallery, rising to relative success in his budding career through numerous group and solo shows. However, these professional achievements were followed by an HIV and consequential AIDS diagnosis, pushing Earley to amass his legacy through painting for the remainder of his life. He moved back to Texas in his final years to be near family and fell in love with his home state, creating artwork that focused on Texas iconography and narratives. Being a queer artist himself, Earley also assisted in the DMA’s first Day Without Art, a nationwide day of mourning and activism for the AIDS crisis in 1989. He died three years later, in June 1992, due to complications from AIDS. 

Earley’s work employs a distinctly medieval sense of depth and composition, stacking people against one another as their elongated, flat bodies and dreary faces set an uneasy pace. The medieval inspiration furthers the stagnant dread of his subjects in both historical associations and scenery. Intentionally combining postmodern ideation with an ever-present archaic angst, Earley’s subjects embody modern mundanity and other timeliness simultaneously. 

The Rapture reflects Earley’s deep sense of unnerving detail as people ascend into the heavens from tasks left unattended at particularly inconvenient times. Scenes such as people mid-drive in downtown Dallas alongside a dog being dragged up by its leash from its owner’s enrapturement mix discomfort into closure. The consequences of the rapture, a Christian end-time belief in which God will raise his believers into heaven, are as uniquely curious as they are unsettling. As someone who spent the majority of his life during the Cold War, Earley developed a fascination with the motionless angst of the time and the looming threat of nuclear war during an otherwise calm postwar American dream. Earley found what he called a “distant kinship” with medieval art, which was made by men caught in a similar perpetual fear, even if for different reasons. This is profoundly evident in The Rapture as Dallas residents move upward in the final moments of Earth, leaving behind their mortal lives in a vibrant yet devastating display. 

Situated in downtown Dallas’s converging highways, these enraptured Dallas residents above Dealey Plaza underscore an infamous part of the city’s history: the JFK assassination. Earley parallels the shock and fear of this historical event with the angst-ridden mundanity of postwar American life that was so prevalent for the Baby Boomer generation. The angst, melded into departures and closures, endings and beginnings, is met in equal part by Sean Earley’s uncanny sense of humor and playfulness. A vibrant, orderly Dallas is pulled at by its threads with a certain absurdity—as seen in a woman crashing through the ceiling of a building, the petrified and expressionless ascension of each person, and even the vibrant retrofuturistic cars—preluding a future not too far from the painting’s creation in 1982. Earley depicts the everyday fears of American life—and Dallas life, in particular—in a melting pot of emotions from all corners of suburbia using an unseen higher hand, and, to some extent, he plays God as he whisks his subjects upward across the wooden panel. 

Julia Garrett is the 2023–2024 McDermott Intern for Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art

Image: Sean Earley, The Rapture, 1982. Oil on wood, 49 3/4 × 49 1/4 × 1 1/2 in. (126.37 × 125.1 × 3.81 cm), Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Paul Bridgewater, 2022.90.5. © Estate of Sean Earley.


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