Callum Innes: From Memory

Innes' withdrawal from visual didacticism necessitates a much more subtle method of communication

Feature by Jay Shukla | 12 Nov 2006

Edinburgh-born painter Callum Innes is one of the most highly thought of artists working in Britain today, and his new exhibition at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh  which includes both new and old works gives us a surprisingly personal glimpse into his development over the last fifteen years.

Innes' own idiosyncratic practice is as concerned with the removal of paint as it is with its application. It is the artist's belief that by alternately dissolving and applying colour he can instinctively reach a point at which his paintings achieve an "organic sense" of completeness. Innes' firm conviction that this lengthy process leads to a certain quality arising in his works may be easily dismissed as a kind of bogus faith in the toil of process his somewhat glib claim that the method is "like alchemy" might back this up - but it is much less simple to dismiss the works themselves, which do possess a certain entrancing rhythm.

The series of five Violet Exposed paintings, created specifically for this exhibition, serve as the centre-point of the show and illustrate that despite the repetitive, controlled method of their creation, there is much ambiguity to be found in Innes' work. The large areas of violet and black, which have been worked repeatedly with turpentine, achieve a kind of limpid softness, an effect that might be compared to morning sunlight playing behind drawn curtains.

The evocation of such specific, subjective impressions, stemming as they do from such a seemingly austere and mechanical sequence of images, marks the success of Innes' work. Innes' withdrawal from visual didacticism, characterized by his adoption of erasure as an integral part of expression, necessitates a much more subtle method of communication. In these Exposed paintings this is manifested in the subtle differences and similarities between the works, and in the artefacts of the painting process that occur around the edges of these fields of colour.

Innes' admission that "it's all about the hand… emotion, gesture," coupled with his assertion that he "likes the idea that people can't quite work out how I make my paintings" may sound like an oxymoron, but there is a definite grey area here, and it is one that Innes explores quite successfully. His presence echoes around these works, the delicate, intricate patterns within his reworked areas of pigment creating an unexpected intimacy.

If his Exposed paintings are characterised by restraint, then his Monologues are an altogether more energetic affair. Eschewing the long, studied gestation of his other works these "cathartic" paintings are completed in one long session for which the artist must "prepare emotionally". In Monologue Seven Innes brushes his dark grey base with turpentine from the bottom upward, allowing it to run down the canvas, adjusting his strokes in response to this organic process. The result is a work which possesses a rich, weathered quality, yet retains the sense of precision and premeditation that characterises the Exposed paintings.

The creative limits that Innes places upon each series of works is key to their success. By refining each canvas within a given set of parameters, the artist amplifies the importance of each element within it, focusing our attention in a quite unique way. The works in this show are unified by this common focus, eschewing draughtsmanship in favour of an almost scientific investigation of the properties of colour, light and proportion. It is to the artist's credit that this aesthetic rigour makes for such compelling work.

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh until November 19. Free.