Callum Innes

It is not so long since the inherently repetitive nature of cultural activity seemed to suggest that abstraction was a vanquished option. How could you confront everyday reality with the reality of painting if there were no difference between the two? In some quarters, however, it is increasingly the tendency to reassert claims of value against the more self-indulgent aspects of post-Modernism’s love affair with heterogeneity. As Kate Soper said at a recent conference on “Values” at the ICA, “reveling in the loss of progress is a Western metropolitan privilege that depends on living in a certain state of grace, a condition where no one is starving you, torturing you, no one is even denying you the price of a cinema ticket or tube fare to the conference on post-Modernism.” Aimed at reinvesting the possibility of abstraction as a first-order practice, Callum Innes’ canvases do not sit easily within the dystopian ambience of post-Conceptual painting. They eschew the requisite cynicism.

Innes’ method is reductive: the canvas is covered with a single color in even, broad-brushed strokes before turpentine, dripped onto it from a pipette, runs down the surface, dissolving and bleaching the paint over which it passes. Alternatively, in the “Paintings Formed with White” (all works 1991), paint is laid on thickly and then scraped off in horizontal swathes. The incidents in these works are insubstantial, defined by the absence of paint, not even revealed but inferred, like “white holes.” Their titles are equally noncommittal, being more than a vacuous “untitled” yet anything but informative. Tags like Repetition and Identified Forms attach to thoroughly non-specific shapes. Repetition, of course, is a plain description of what is self-evident anyway—the artist’s method of loosing drop after drop of turpentine to meander down the canvas. Identified Forms is less obviously applicable in this sense. It is the sort of gnomic title that suggests that Innes knows what is going on and assumes that you do too. It is one of those “gentlemen’s agreements” that allow the viewer to “see” almost anything in the painting as long as that vision is not vocalized—for then it would become specific and would have to be ruled out in court.

The effects are more often than not pleasing, especially when, as here, the canvases are hung low on the wall. This has the effect of emphasizing the importance of the natural downward flow of the turpentine in creating pictorial structure. But it is rarer to find - oneself engaged with these paintings at a level beyond that of pure mechanism. They are elegant, have a quiet repose, and are self-assured, but this doesn’t seem to be quite sufficient. The way in which they are made accounts for most of their interest, and the attempt to see them as symbolic of, or, as metaphors for intellectual or physical phenomena can be a strained one. They are neither rigorous enough for the former, nor sufficiently free in their materiality for the latter.

Michael Archer