Text originally published as part of the exhibition Callum Innes: Paintings and works on paper at the ICA, London, UK (1992)
A poet of common sense
‘The poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities - even the poetry of nothingness - issues from a poet who has no doubts whatever about the physical reality of the world’. (Italo Calvino on Lecretius. From ‘Lightness’, the first of Six Memos for the Next Millennium, London 1992)
The Paintings of Callum Innes have a remarkable emotive presence. As objects they are charged with an intense energy; as images they are startlingly minimal and devoid of elaboration. Seeming to lack intent upon us, depicting nothing, inexpressive, they have nevertheless a powerful effect. Their quietly insistent claim upon the attention doesn’t elicit word so much as contemplative silence. The spectator is confronted as if by some beautiful or mysterious natural phenomenon: brilliant lights ascending in a dense night sky; soft rock, wind-scarred or stained by mineral-bearing water; random organic deposits. Such associations are not merely fanciful, though the paintings are in no way depictive of such things. The procedures by which they are made, which involve processes of dripping and pouring, staining, dissolving, eroding are indeed similar to the natural processes by which the earth and sky are marked in ceaseless variegations, which are unpredictable but familiar.
These processes are employed with a careful deliberation that respects their objectivity, their lack of amenability, their intractable otherness, and which recognises their own undeniable time-scales. Innes works with the inclinations of his materials, as his technique requires that he must. The duration of its making is inscribed in each painting, just as the scarring, streaking and staining of natural objects is a record of the time it has taken for their surfaces to be eroded or pocked, smoothed or rippled. Time is a function of nature, whose phenomena make it visible: the veining of marble is the compacted record of endless generations of foramenfera; the trajectory of a shooting star is an instantaneous drawing burned across the sky; the lightning flash is the sign of the erratic passage of an inscription of ages. By conspiring with the natural properties of oil, turpentine and shellac, and their interactions on canvas and paper - and most of all by working through processes of scraping, dissolving, of eliminating, eroding and uncovering - Innes creates objects whose surfaces are analogous to those of natural objects. The images are not only like things observed in nature, but are themselves natural images that, in his own words, ‘exist in their own right’. We encounter them and contemplate them in real time; our time is their element.
Their impersonality as objects, that quality they have of seeming to have happened into the world free of expressive intent, is in fact the outcome of careful preparation and sustained working. Innes is a consummately controlled and methodical craftsman whose procedures have nothing of the automatic about them. His paintings do not exploit the accidental for evocative or imitative effect; his mode is resolutely anti-metaphorical. Rather his paintings may be seen as analogues of the natural, a mental construct built upon a perceptual base. Their surfaces and configurations of matter are determined by the calculated enlistment of natural process in their creation. For Innes the paintings are objects for contemplation of time and space, nature and art. The time that has gone into their making is itself part of their subject; their spacial play is both illusionistic (we cannot look at a canvas without thinking that) and is concerned with their relation to the spectator in real space; their material actualities are correspondences, mediated through art, of natural forms.
The philosophical resonance of Innes’ paintings are achieved in the visual language of art, and they must take their place within its complex history. They are not conceptual demonstrations or statements about things so much as presentations of things, made in such a way as to invite a thoughtful response to an aesthetic experience. (We have the right to turn away; but to look at them is to be caught up in the questions they pose, questions that may have no definite answers, but which demand asking for all that.) What makes such an artistic project remarkable and heartening at the present time is its lack of any kind of knowing or unknowing cynicism, its simultaneous employment of virtuosity and natural process, not for spectacular, sensational, effect but as a means of approach to metaphysical matters. There is no irony in Innes’ work, no jokey reflexive appropriation of historical styles.
Knowledge of the spiritual inner history of abstract painting in the twentieth century, and a keen critical awareness of the expressive economy of the late 60s/early 70s Minimalism, has enabled Innes to rediscover in his own painting, in contemporary terms, something of the meditative mode of a work by Chardin or Morandi. As in the art of these masters of the contemplative, Innes presents us with irreducible specifics whose affective power is that of instances of the nature of things in general; objects exemplary of what it is that transcends the momentary particularities of time and place. The objects in the paintings of Chardin and Morandi are charged with an immanent immateriality. In the paintings of Innes, the imaged world of solid things is dissolved: the paintings are themselves exemplary objects representing invisible realities.
Innes belongs very much with the european ambit of abstract art. His insistence upon the phenomenal, the grounding of his work in material fact and organic process, relates to the work of Tapies and other post-war European abstractionists whose passionate metaphysics began in the manipulation of the tangible actualities of physical matter. His emphasis on an imagery of space, light and movement, which are integral to the work and are arrived at through dynamic eliminations, disruptions and deformations, links him above all to fontana. (‘Movement’, said Fontana ‘- the property of evolution and development - is the basic condition of the matter’.) The materials of which his paintings are made are species of the general materia mundi, the paintings themselves are beautiful differentiations out of physical chaos, imitations of the metaphysical that have a basis in our common sense. In this last respect Innes reveals himself as a profoundly Scottish artist.*
* For discussion of the Scottish philosophy of common sense see George Davie’s seminal studies on Scottish cultural and philosophical history - especially The Democratic Intellect (Part IV) (Edinburgh, 1961): and The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect (Part III) (Edinburgh, 1986).