When entering Frith Street Gallery, there is an initial risk of misunderstanding Callum Innes’ work. A visitor could easily glance at the paintings here, determine them to be simple and flat, and they could walk away. However, Innes’ pieces function almost like impressionist works - only up-close do his markings and layers become apparent, and you suddenly become aware that each piece is an arrangement of layers and brushstrokes on a canvas, each possessing different finishes and textures. Their unique forms result from Innes’ lengthy experimentation with materials, and these pieces successfully communicate the process of their creation; here, description and symbolism become irrelevant.
It is only after this closer look that Innes’ use of turpentine becomes visible. Though painting is usually an additive process - a building-up of medium upon a surface - Innes uses a medium that is corrosive by nature and so eats away at the paint rather than building upon it. In several of Innes’ works, such as ‘Untitled Black Lamp No. IV’ (2018), oil paint has been layered until the colours merge to black. Innes has then stripped down the layers on a perfect half-section of the canvas with turpentine, washing away until a single colour is revealed. Up close, the black half is wonderfully complex; within its thick, varnished texture it hides washes of colour that occasionally shine through in the right light. The stripped side creates a satisfyingly vibrant contrast to this, with its translucent lime-yellow streaks.
Innes’ removal technique and his monochrome style brings up obvious associations with Rothko and mid-century modernism. Indeed, he employs the language of minimalism and colour field painting, but Innes’ works are more than a pastiche of this era. ‘Keeping Time’ gathers works spanning from the early nineties to today; his approach is a process, building upon his own experimentation as well as playing with elements of earlier art, and so Innes’ has successfully established his own method that has gradually become the defining characteristic of his work.
The theme of time is central to this appropriately titled exhibition. ‘Keeping Time’ as a collection documents the refinement of Innes’ technique over almost three decades, and the works themselves speak of the temporal process of building up and washing away, of adding and erasing. Additionally, the graphic appearance of the pieces evokes a sense of the digital and the printed. In this era, we readily expect such geometric works to be digital creations, for we have come to associate this vibrant and clean style with modern technology. In an age where everything is produced quickly and consumed even quicker, Innes’ work is a reminder that even simplicity - such as block colours on a canvas - can take time and physical effort. The subject of art can be the process itself, and the final piece can become a narrative of that process. Sometimes, we just need to look closer to appreciate this.