Calum Innes: I Look To You

August 2009

Publication: The Times

Looking at the edge of a stretched, finished canvas, in preference to the main body of the painting is, without doubt, an unusual way to approach a work of art. It is, nevertheless, the point to where the eye is inexorably drawn when contemplating the apparently, spare, abstract paintings of Callum Innes.


These edges, often considered an unimportant element in a painting’s composition (and meaning), could so easily have been painted over and obscured by the artist leaving only a blank, untelling white. But these markings are central to an understanding of the compositional processes behind the paintings’ making. They offer clues and hints about Innes’s approach, his aesthetic and his development of a complex, yet highly refined pictorial language.


Some years ago Innes showed as series which he termed ‘Exposed Painting’ – these were works which asked questions about themselves in a rather more deliberate way than most painting. Their basis was the subtractive process of removing paint, thinning oils with turpentine – thus exposing the sometimes complex blend of pigments which comprise a ‘single’ colour. Looking at them one had the idea that successive layers were being removed to reveal, paradoxically, a more intricate ‘meaning’. It was as if the paintings were a form of palimpsest.


Here, some of these ideas and techniques are still at play. The edges of these works reveal the processes of their making. In one, successive vertically-oriented shades of blue are punctuated by an almost unbroken line of black which itself bleeds into greys and spots of pigment. In another, a vertical wash of orange overlays a paler grey-black.


These colours, shades, markings and movements are also to be found (albeit in a more subtle form) on the main body of the work. Ostensibly, the paintings themselves – all of which bear the description ‘untitled’ – appear as almost square canvasses divided vertically into two blocks of colour. Sometimes a line appears to have been painted ‘over’ the points where the two sections of colour meet.  A more careful examination reveals that this dividing ‘line’ is, in fact, a deliberate exposure of the painting’s underlayer.


Closer inspection of these works, particularly with the benefit of strong, natural light therefore reveals an underwash ‘primer’ of black, painted horizontally and covered with, say, orange on the left and white on the right. Another, with the same proportionality, offers a combination of white to the left and lime-green to the right.


There is a tension and a dynamic in these works created by the knowledge that what has been covered, has only been done partially. The thick, horizontally applied strokes of monochrome do not obscure but, rather, filter what is underneath.


These paintings interrogate their own making; they are, in short, paintings about paint and the act of painting. They are also vibrant, almost living works, their tonality changing with the restless movement of natural light as it courses through the gallery’s large windows, setting up multiple relationships with the interior space and the external world.


These works deserve and reward careful and ample consideration.