Text reproduced from the publication: Callum Innes (Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and Kunsthalle Bern, Germany, 1998) 

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Spots of Time 

Jean-Luc Nancy’s remarkable meditation ‘On Painting (and) Presence’ opens with the following caveat: “[There] is an incapacity, an infirmity, an impossibility inherent in writing about painting, to writing in the face of painting, for which every text on painting must account.” Nancy concedes that there is nothing new in this realisation.

 It has long been a concern of writers on modern, especially nonrepresentational art. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s essay ‘Vision’s Resistance to Language’ is a recent examination of the antagonistic relationship between these two faculties. Noting the propensity of artwriting either to “founder or simply go off somewhere else when confronted with an art object”

 Gilbert-Rolfe suggests that one reason lies in a fundamental difference between the visual and the verbal:

“[While] painting etc. may point to ideas, words are ideas. And what is more, they’re as often not ideas which convey themselves through an implicitly visual language, so that when describing a painting a writer is likely to submerge one visual image, the painting, in the images conjured up to describe it.”

This tendency of language, especially descriptive language, to overpower, pre-empt or obscure painting is tacitly acknowledged and subtly subverted by Callum Innes in a recent project. In 1996 Innes collaborated with Enitharmon Press on a limited edition of Honoré de Balzac’s short story The Unknown Masterpiece, translated into English by Leon Livingstone. Balzac’s story is set in Paris in the early seventeenth century and revolves around the relationship between the young Nicolas Poussin, the established painter Porbus, and the obsessive, obscure master Frenhofer. Frenhofer is a painting zealot, a driven man who has been working for ten years in secret on his masterpiece, Quarrelsome Beauty. Such is the rhetorical force of Frenhofer’s frantically eloquent pronouncements on painting in general, and his impassioned account of the painful evolution of his unfinished ‘chef d’oeuvre’, that his two colleagues are gradually brought to a pitch of unbearable curiosity. At the dénouement of the story the painting is finally revealed. To the dismay of Poussin and Porbus it transpires that Frenhofer’s unbridled passion for his painting is so all-consuming that his original subject, the beautiful Catherine, has been entirely obliterated by overpainting, lost forever amid ‘confused masses of colour bound by a multitude of weird lines which form a wall of paint.”

The spell woven by Frenhofer’s intoxicating rhetoric cannot be sustained by the experience of the actual painting. The artwork has been consumed by discourse, overcome by the excesses of the visionary’s language, which is the verbal expression and equivalent of his frenzied, destructive over-painting. As Poussin ruefully admits, Frenhofer is ultimately “even more of a poet than a painter”.

Innes does not respond to the challenge posed by language to the visual by attempting in this particular instance, to match or surpass Balzac’s text by illustrating it. To do so would be to accept implicitly a subordinate, ancillary or responsive role for painting. Instead he literally envelops Balzac in painting. Each of the fifty copies which make up this limited edition is individually bound in a fragment of an Innes painting which was expressly ‘destroyed’ for this purpose.

Balzac’s words are enfolded by Innes’ images in a painterly embrace. With this gesture the artist produces a visual enhancement of language which nonetheless retains its own independence. Here the visual has, in a very real sense, got language covered. This is an exceptional example of the interpellation of language into the art of Callum Innes. His work has also, inevitably, involved itself in the more commonplace interaction between the verbal and the visual to which all but the most tightlipped and/or obscure artists are subjected, i.e. the discourse around his painting constituted by the artist himself and his previous commentators and exegetes.

Toward the end of the essay already cited, Gilbert-Rolfe suggests two ways in which the artwriter, despite the apparent incompatibilities between vision and language, might usefully address an artwork: “One approach would focus on the possibilities of the work as discourse, the other as event [emphasis added].”

While Gilbert-Rolfe discusses the first of these approaches largely in terms of its inherent drawbacks and merely hints at the potential of the second approach, it seems to me that a text written ‘in the face of’ the paintings of Callum Innes might benefit from a brief engagement with both, and more particularly with a certain nexus between the two.  

As an opening gambit in a recent interview about his painting Innes made the following declaration:

“With my work in abstraction, I think about it as photography, as photography freezes moments in time, so I work with time more than anything else.”

Now there is no reason for a viewer or writer to treat an artist’s pronouncements on his own work as holy writ. (In fact an attitude of healthy scepticism will often serve equally well.) However, the notion of time as crucial to a consideration of his work appears to be an important one for Innes. Even more significantly, it has become part of the discourse surrounding the work at a time when the pressure exerted on contemporary painting by its discursive field is considerable. The concept of temporality has been taken up by Mel Gooding in the most closely attentive reading to date of Innes’ painting. The first of Gooding’s two meditations on the work is titled ‘Time’ and opens with another quote from the artist: “... in a sense the paintings measure time.” Gooding proceeds to provide a persuasive account of the various ways in which time is inscribed in the paintings, including the time factor involved in the different processes employed in their making, the visible traces of those processes which are available to the viewer and the temporal aspects of the viewer’s engagement with the paintings, on both the perceptual and conceptual plane.

Rather than repeat these arguments the purpose of the remainder of this essay is to press them a little further while at the same time broadening their scope by elaborating on Innes’ suggestive comparison of his painting with photography. This will incidentally entail pointing to a fundamental difference between his painting and that of a ‘strong precursor’, to use Harold Bloom’s term, occasionally mentioned in accounts of his Innes' work.

Jean-Francois Lyotard’s preamble to his discussion of the art of Barnett Newman in the essay ‘Newman: The Instant’ rehearses a set of rudimentary distinctions between different “states of time” which closely parallel those adumbrated by Gooding in his discussion of Innes.

“A distinction should be made between the time it takes the painter to paint a picture (the time of ‘production’), the time required to look at and understand the work (the time of ‘consumption’), the time to which the work refers (a moment, a scene, a situation, a sequence of events: the time of the diegetic referent, of the story told by the picture), the time it takes to reach the viewer once it has been ‘created’ (the time of circulation) and finally, perhaps, the time the painting is.”

Lyotard acknowledges that what distinguishes the work of Barnett Newman is not the fact that it is obsessed with the question of time. After all that is an obsession shared by many painters, including Callum Innes. What is peculiar to Newman’s art is “the fact that it gives an unexpected answer to that question: its answer is that time is the picture itself.”

Focusing to some extent on the time to which the work refers, and more particularly on the time of consumption, Lyotard deftly subsumes both into “the time the painting is”. According to Lyotard the “subject” of a painting by Newman is that epiphanic instant in which the painting presents itself to the viewer. The time taken to consume it is consequently negligible. “one cannot consume an occurrence, but merely its meaning. The feeling of the instant is instantaneous.”

The purpose of a painting by Newman is “not to show that duration is in excess of consciousness, but to be the occurrence, the moment which has arrived.”

Lyotard’s account of the instantaneous in Newman’s immediate successors in American painting, the colour-field painters whom Fried championed throughout the sixties. In an encounter with a painting by Kenneth Noland or Jules Olitski, according to Fried, “it is as though one’s experience [of the work] has no duration - not because one in fact experiences a picture by Noland or Olitski... in no time at all, but because at every moment the work itself is wholly manifest [author’s emphasis].”

Fried opposed this experience of presentness - which he famously equated with “grace” - to the minimalists’ preoccupation with time which, in stark contrast, stressed the duration of the viewer’s experience of the artwork. The experience of minimalist art and the presentment of endlessness that is central to its practice and theory, Fried writes, “is essentially a presentment of endless or indefinite duration.”

Callum Innes is a painter who comes after Newman, colour-field painting and minimalism, and he is happy acknowledge debts to various forebears. Yet his work functions in a fundamentally different way again. Crucially, the notion of the time most clearly suggested by his painting is neither that of an instantaneous occurrence or revelation of presentness, on the one hand, or of endless duration, on the other. A painting by Innes constitutes rather an interruption in the flow of time or, as he puts it, the freezing of “a moment in time”. It is thus proper and pertinent to invoke photography in addressing his work. For photography, as Roland Barthes has stated, has at its core “an enigmatic point of inactuality, a strange stasis, the stasis of an arrest.”

The event of a painting by Innes is of the order of an arrest, and this is affirmed by the discourse in which it has become embedded. When we look at one of the recent ‘Exposed Paintings’, for instance, what we see resembles a snapshot of work in continual progress. (The photographic connotations of the notion of ‘exposure’ are hardly accidental.) This is true both at the level of the individual painting and, more generally, of the ‘oeuvre’ as a whole. An Innes painting can be undeniably beautiful and complete, and at the same time engender the slightly discomfiting feeling that work on it has merely been temporarily suspended, or arbitrarily interrupted. The artist himself is notably unforthcoming about the means by which he arrives at a decision that a painting is finished, and he destroys a great many canvasses. (In this, of course, he is not unique.) All accounts of his working methods stress the significant role played by the removal of paint from the surface of the canvas as well as that played by its application. Such acts of subtraction or negation form a natural part of the process for many artists. They are, however, crucial to Innes and constitute a central thematic of the work. Key details in the majority of the paintings are more likely to be traces of gestures made by a brush laden with turpentine than one laden with paint. ‘Unpainting’ is as important, if not more important, than painting. The process is, in principle, endless. The uneven line of dissolved paint that trails down toward the bottom of the canvas in many of the ‘Exposed Paintings’ is reminiscent of the vapour trail left by an aeroplane that has disappeared from view, a trail that will itself vanish in time. The paintings harness and contain the unstable and the immaterial.

The concept of ‘immaterialization’, which is originally Lyotard’s, informs a notable, recent rereading of the relationship between painting and photography. The invention of photography in the nineteenth century has been conventionally viewed as providing a powerful challenge to painting’s supposed desire for verisimilitude, thereby instigating the turn toward abstraction in modernist painting. In the modernist account of the relation between the two media, the ‘typical’ photograph is the crisply realistic snapshot whose documentary truth is self-evident and unassailable. Thomas Docherty has, however, offered an alternative account, which audaciously sidesteps strict historical chronology and claims photography instead for postmodernism. For Docherty the typical photograph is rather the blurred image common in early photographs due to prolonged exposure-times.

Docherty’s emphasis on the ‘immaterializing’ potential of photography allows for a less starkly oppositional account of its relation to painting. It suggests, moreover, intriguing possibilities for the interpretation of painters as far apart in time and tenor as Claude Monet and Gerhard Richter. Among these we may number Callum Innes. For Docherty, photography focuses not on the reality of a presence but rather, as was tangentially suggested by Barthes, on what is absent, on what is not there. Invoking Paul Virilio’s description of the modern city as a stasis that contains movement and speed Docherty suggests that

“Movement, speed and displacement are all inscribed in the typical photograph: its spectrum reveals not what is there as presence but rather it reveals what is always already elsewhere: it produces ‘presence’ only if that term is understood as carrying the sense of ‘ghostly’ presence.”

This conceptualisation of the photographic is entirely apposite in a discussion of the work of Callum Innes.

To reinvoke Fried on modernist painting, it is impossible for the viewer to imagine, in front of a painting by Innes, that ‘at every moment the work itself is wholly manifest.” The traces of the process by which the painting has been elaborated are too insistent. The painting gestures too obviously toward its obliterated past. It also gestures toward the possibility - given the clearly volatile nature of the processes involved in its evolution - of an alternative present or presents, not to mention its aborted future. yet these possibilities are not endless or inexhaustible in the manner Fried found so disconcerting in minimalism. Each individual painting has the particularity and personality of a cherished family photo, a fact underscored rather than undermined by occasional, inevitable family resemblances. Like a photograph, a painting by Callum Innes is a moment arrested in time.


Caomhín Mac Giolla Léith

August 1998



1 Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘On Painting (and) Presence’ (trans. Emily McVarnish), The Birth to Presence (Stanford University Press 1993) p341.

2 Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beyond Piety: Critical essays on the Visual Arts 1986-1993 (Cambridge University Press 1995) p38.

3 Gilbert-Rolfe, p39.

4 Honoré de Balzac/Callum Innes, The Unknown Masterpiece (Enitharmon Press 1996) trans. Leon Livingstone, with an introductory essay by Marco Livingstone, p37.

5 de Balzac/Innes, p39.

6 Marco Livingstone’s introductory essay on the paintings of Callum Innes produces an additional complication of the relationship between the visual and the verbal.

7 Gilbert-Rolfe, p41.

8 Interview with Kevin Henderson in Transcript 3/2, pp31-41.

9 Mel Gooding, ‘Looking at the Paintings: Two Meditations’, Callum Innes 1990-1996 (Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh) unpaginated.

10 Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Newman: The Instant’ in The Inhuman, trans. Geoff Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Polity Press 1991) p78.

11 Lyotard, p80.

12 Lyotard, p79.

13 Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’ [1967], reprinted in Art and Objecthood (University of Chicago Press 1998) p167.

14 Fried, p166. In Lyotard’s terms, to experience a minimalist artwork is thus more akin to reading than to seeing (see Discours Figure (Editions Klingschiek 1971) and elsewhere). This opposition in Lyotard’s thought in turn provides the basis for Gilbert-Rolfe’s distinction, already cited, between discourse and event.

15 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (Fontana 1984) p91.

16 Thomas Docherty, ‘Photography as postmodern cartography’, chapter 3 in After Theory (Routledge 1990) pp63-94.

17 Docherty, pp 76-7.

18 This reading of Innes through a conceptualised relation between painting and photography incidentally suggests comparisons with arts as various as Gerhard Richter and Jeff Wall. Such comparisons might prove at least as fruitful as the discussion of Innes’ painting exclusively in terms of late modernist abstraction or ‘process’ art.