Etching colour into the darkness
Scottish artist Callum Innes is part of the YBA generation but, unlike many of them, he is an abstract painter. He starts with a black canvas and takes the work on a journey into the light
BORN IN EDINBURGH, in 1962, Callum Innes is notable as an artist for a number of reasons apart from the consistent rigour and quality of his work. One is that, although he is of the YBA generation and has achieved significant professional success, he is that relative rarity among them: an abstract painter. Another is that he is still based in Edinburgh, when a logical career trajectory would have seen him long settled in London, the art capital.
Not that he is a fanatical Scottish separatist. On the contrary, his Edinburgh is the Edinburgh of the Scottish Enlightenment, when the city was at its most open, receptive and intellectually creative. And he is ruefully pragmatic: “I like the idea of talking about moving away, and then never actually moving.”
The city works for him. “It’s that combination of identity and anonymity. And I travel a lot. At home I need space and quiet to get on with what I’m doing, and I have that.”
Five years ago he moved into a new, much larger studio. “It’s funny how moving studio can produce changes in your work.” He began to produce watercolours, for one thing: “Simply because I can have a separate area where I can do watercolour without, you know, getting oily hands all over everything.” That’s been productive, leading to a rich body of work and a fruitful collaboration with writer Colm Tóibín, published in book form as Water|Colour.
Innes begins from a point at the very heart of the classical tradition of abstract painting, and he remains true to that tradition, especially its conjectural nature: the urge to continually explore and test what a painting is or might be. In this respect, he’s been called an “unpainter”, who takes what might normally be considered as a complete, finished work and meticulously unpicks it. He’s happy enough with the term, seeing it as a reasonable description of his working process.
“The surface starts off as black,” he says. That is, he builds up a painting to a point of complete blackness. The uniform blackness can be seen as a kind of impassive, self-contained perfection. The iconic example is Russian artist Kasimir Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square, which is exactly that. But then Innes starts to undo the surface before it is dry, etching into the layers of pigment with turpentine.
Once he begins a painting, he is locked into its schedule. “In a sense I spend a lot of time waiting, waiting for each stage to reach the right level of dryness. Too soon and you lose everything, too late and you can’t do anything at all. I’ve learned how to judge it pretty accurately, that window of opportunity.”
Take a look at his recent paintings in his exhibition Unforeseen at the Kerlin Gallery and you’ll see it’s never just a question of making something and then erasing it. He works precisely and in a structured way.