abstract art, a systems view

Callum Innes at Whitworth Art Gallery

with 11 comments

The exhibition of recent paintings by Callum Innes  at Whitworth Art Gallery is astounding, quite literally breathtaking.

It includes works from his series of Exposed Paintings, where using turpentine, he removes layers of black oil paint to reveal underlying colours, leaving the evidence of his process on the canvas and around the canvas edges.

Callum Innes, Exposed Painting Green Lake, 2012, Oil on linen. Image by courtesy of Whitworth Art Gallery

Callum Innes, Exposed Painting Green Lake, 2012, Oil on linen.Oil on linen, 205 x 200cm, Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London

As I am examining the edges of the canvas to attempt to discover which colours were laid down first a man interrupts me to ask

“have you found any?”

“any what?”

“any brushmarks”.

I think there are some, but the removing of paint is more evident and the multiple layers tend to prevent the perception of individual mark-making.

There are paintings here also from the Monologue series, in which washes resembling a waterfall or a mist cover the entire canvas. Innes’s paintings are rarely ever strictly ‘monochromes’, but I do think that they speak from and to that tradition, and I wonder if the title of this series hints at this.

All the paintings here are of a fair size, big but not massive. There are paintings that do not appear to belong to a named series, Untitled no 31 for example. On second thoughts, they do form a series: the Untitled series in which the canvas is divided vertically into two sections, sometimes into roughly equal halves, but not always.

Callum Innes, Untitled no 31, 2012. Image by courtesy of Whitworth Gallery

Callum Innes, Untitled no 31, 2012. Oil on linen, 160 x156cm, Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London

Sitting down, I look at Untitled no 31 for a long time and it is only the nagging awareness of an upcoming appointment that eventually motivates me to get going. I want to say that there’s something timeless about it except that it also seems to mark the passing of time both of the artist in the making of it and of the viewer who wishes to stay on and gaze. It may be more accurate to say that it induces a time distortion. I get absorbed in the process of seeing, at first accompanied with internal dialogue but less and less so. Time seems to have stopped. It’s not altogether a reverie, nor is it all emotion; whilst there is something emotional about it, there is also “something for the mind to do”. I become fascinated by the line that separates the two ‘halves’ or that joins them, there does seem to be an actual line which can be seen very close up, absent from middle distance but becoming magnified optically after prolonged viewing from where I am seated a few feet away. The surface also takes on a slightly undulating quality. I have the impression that these optical effects are bi-products of the painting process rather than deliberately sought after or designed-in by the artist.

The exhibition also has a selection of works on paper and 20 new watercolours made especially for the Whitworth.The watercolours are displayed laid flat on a long table in a manner that recalls the process of making them. Innes lays the sheets of paper out in sequence and works on them in order, beginning each one by masking off a square in the centre of the paper, blocking it out with a wash of watercolour and leaving it to partially dry before removing the masking and adding further layers allowing them to be slightly larger or smaller than the initial square, so residues of the unmixed colours remain at the edges.

Callum Innes, Cerulean blue / Transparent Orange, 2013. Image by courtesy of Whitworth Gallery

Callum Innes, Cerulean blue / Transparent Orange, 2013, Watercolour, 56 x 77cm, image by courtesy of Frith Street Gallery, London

Each work combines two colours transforming them in the process into a new, indeterminable hue. I am reminded of the dialectical triad: thesis, antithesis, synthesis, which in turn reminds me that no ‘formalist’ painting can ever be only formal, it is always also trans-formal.

Callum Innes, Ivory Black Green / Titanium White, 2013, watercolour on Fabriano Artistico HP 640gsm, 56 x 77 cm. Image by courtesy of Whitworth Gallery

Callum Innes, Ivory Black Green / Titanium White, 2013, Watercolour, 56 x 77cm, image by courtesy of Frith Street Gallery, London

There is something right about seeing them laid horizontally, partly because it maintains the sequence, encouraging me to see each individual work as a part of a larger whole, and partly because I think the colours are slightly intensified when seen in this orientation.

Callum Innes, Red Violet / Gamboge Modern, 2013,  watercolour on Fabriano Artistico HP 640gsm, 56 x 77 cm. Image by courtesy of Whitworth Gallery

Callum Innes, Red Violet / Gamboge Modern, 2013, Watercolour, 56 x 77cm, image by courtesy of Frith Street Gallery, London

These works, whether the large paintings or the watercolours, are only deceptively, simple. All the actions that are documented in the production process are in themselves very simple, and sometimes they result in paintings that at first glance also seem simple. Yet linger only a short while and their complexity becomes more apparent. And it’s paradoxical in that the process of making is never hidden, it is in one sense clearly displayed. However, the moment I try to piece it together it eludes me it all starts to seem too difficult to follow, much of the process now being obscured by the very action of layering and removal of paint. If I might switch sensory systems for a moment I could say that viewing them is akin to the experience of listening to music by Steve Reich, on the one hand simple ( I resist the ‘minimalist’ tag) and on the other, highly complex.

The Callum Innes exhibition, part of the Whitworth Spring Season, opened on 2 March and continues to 16 June 2013.


11 Responses

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  1. Another excellent and perceptive review Andy. I think the parallel with Reich’s music – and of some of those who have followed on from him (I’m listening to the gorgeous Leyfdu Ijosinu by Hildur Gudnadottir right now) is spot on. The recent penchant of the UK artworld to revisit ‘process’ art is mostly rather dreary but Callum Innes’ commitment to this way of working over the past twenty five years to create things which have real substance and beauty is something to celebrate. And this one I shall get to see!

    David Manley

    March 9, 2013 at 11:47 am

  2. Thanks David for your encouraging comments. I was listening to the Reich concert on Radio 3 last week and and the connection seemed a very natural one, His ‘clapping music’ is amazingly simple yet when it actually plays out it seems complex. I guess a cannon or a round is like that, employing only staggered repetitions and becoming richly complex in sound. I will look up Hildur Gudnadottir. The Whitworth show is on for some time so I hope to get another visit myself. There’s also a good catalogue of the watercolours entitled “History” with good reproductions (some of which I discovered are upside down).

    Andy Parkinson

    March 11, 2013 at 8:14 am

  3. I like the small “anomalies” in these paintings. On first glance, there is a simple pattern, but you can never make it match perfectly so a tension remains and the perceptive process keeps working. A very interesting effect. Thanks for showing us these.


    March 13, 2013 at 8:10 pm

  4. I’ve been to see the exhibition today and think this is aa good, insightful review


    April 3, 2013 at 10:14 pm

  5. […] For another view, there’s a good, insightful report of his visit to the exhibition by Andy Parkinson on his blog  Patterns that Connect here. […]

  6. They are deceptively simple but beautiful pieces

    Nicholas Herbert

    April 23, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    • Thanks for commenting Nicholas, yes I agree, deceptive indeed and quite beautiful.

      Andy Parkinson

      April 23, 2013 at 3:06 pm

  7. Thanks for the post! Callum Innes paintings are amazing … I found beautiful pictures of his Exposed Paintings in Art Days, here is the link!

    Pyrrhon Artlover

    March 22, 2014 at 10:35 am

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