abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Whitworth Art Gallery

Callum Innes at Whitworth Art Gallery

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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.

Doing the Whitworth Walk

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We had done some walking ourselves, in Derbyshire, and I had also recently seen Marek Tobolewski‘s work at Tarpey Gallery, where he seemed, in part, to be taking Paul Klee‘s advice about “taking a line for a walk”, so walking had already become a bit of a theme, when my brother and I visited the Whitworth, Manchester.

As well as the Flailing Trees and the film(s) 1395 Days Without Red, we saw Projections: Works from The Artangel Collection, art work by Francis Alys, Atom Egoyan, Tony Oursler and Catherine Yass. And there were walking themes! High Wire, 2008 by Catherine Yass features a four screen video presentation of a walk on a very high wire, (the wire stretched between two tower blocks at The Red Road Estate, in Glasgow) by Didier Pasquette.  I was on the edge of my metaphorical seat (I was actually standing at the time) as he edged his way onto the wire, walked about half way and was then forced back by the buffeting wind. The four videos showing different views, from different perceptual positions, includes one filmed by the walker, a camera being attached to his head. They are each dramatic in different ways, each supplying a different description.

Different too are the walks described by Francis Alys in his Seven Walks, 2005. Whilst I view I am walking, retracing his steps in my imagination as I look at various documents and maps recording walks in London made by the artist, for example walking only on the sunny side of the street, or on the shady side of the street. I find I get engrossed and fascinated as I study drawings, notes, lists, and photographs, along with photocopies that seem connected to the walks through something similar to the psychoanalytical technique of free association. It seems a lot like what happens whenever you take a walk, you free-associate as you go. Ideas, images come to mind only to be replaced or built upon by others vaguely related to the sights, sounds and feelings of the ‘external’ walk.

There are videos too, The Nightwatch is an installation of multiple CCTV screens, placing the viewer in the perceptual position of security personnel at the National Portrait Gallery, watching an urban fox make its way through the labyrinth of galleries. The fox’s walk is also documented as a storyboard and drawn on a plan of the galleries. Seeing this line taken for a walk, I free-associate, remembering Paul Klee and Marek Tobolewski.

In the video Railings, a man walks through the Regency squares of London, drumming a stick along the cast-iron railings, the walls, the pillars at the doorways of the Georgian (?) houses, even at one stage setting off a car alarm. Screened in trio, with a staggered timeframe, like a round, the rhythms become a cacophony, an auditory record of the walk being shown visually.

Years ago, when Clement Greenberg was charting the ‘progress’ of visual art towards the flattened picture plane I seem to remember that, as well as glorying in the replacement of the window-on-the-world with abstraction, he also recognised it as a loss. (It is a loss that many painters have since been unwilling to make, hence the return with a vengeance of figurative painting since modernism.) At the Whitworth today I saw sculpture, figurative painting and drawing both traditional and contemporary, prints, photography, video, film and conceptual art documented in a variety of ways and there was ‘sound art’ too. What I didn’t see anywhere on my Whitworth walk was an abstract painting and though there was much to enjoy, and I did enjoy it, I experienced this conspicuous absence as a great loss!

Flailing Trees by Gustav Metzger

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Visiting Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, can’t be done without bumping into these upside-down weeping willows, 21 in all, set in concrete, an art work by Gustav Metzger, entitled Flailing Trees.


An example of ‘auto-destructive’ art, it will self destruct in who knows how many seconds. Well, it was made nearly three years ago and one of the trees has fallen. That happened about three weeks ago.

Written by Andy Parkinson

September 4, 2011 at 9:20 am