Renowned Scottish abstract painter Callum Innes talks to Edmund Lee about his idiosyncratic creative process.
“Take up fishing. Have a hobby,” says Callum Innes jokingly when asked about his plans for the future. And he should. Since he started off briefly with figurative paintings (and found them to be ‘wrong’), the Scottish artist has been hard at work – and has firmly established himself as a prominent abstract painter of minimalist geometric works, which are created through a repetitive cycle of painting and ‘unpainting’ (the word art critics use to describe his signature process of wiping off part of the painted canvas with turpentine). “I see it as the making of a painting. I don’t see it as ‘unpainting’,” Innes remarks. “Each of my paintings is a snapshot of a process.” Time Out talked to him during his brief visit to Hong Kong in mid-March…
Can you tell us about your work at this exhibition?
The paintings here all started out as solid black paintings, and then I took a portion [of paint] off them. It’s about space, it’s about structure, and it’s about the void. [It’s about] how you can create a space with something very simple. They all pertain to be geometric. But they’re not measured: I made a line through them by dividing by hand. Nothing is quite ‘right’ in this routine of fragility, hopefully. There’s no narrative in my work, but… today, walking around Hong Kong, I see things – like some orange and black stripes I saw going up the escalator. [The image] sits in my head, and that’s where structure comes from.
Has architecture always been part of your inspiration?
[It is about] spaces, how you work with space, and how you kind of evolve a space. I did some teaching in Edinburgh with architecture students, and we talked about space and how you react to space. But it’s more [about] how the body physically reacts to space. So for me, a painting… you know, you don’t look at [a] painting and stand straight in the middle – you move around the object.
When you create each of your paintings, do you have a particular idea or object in your mind?
There’s a series of violet paintings I started years ago, and it’s best to explain [this]. I had an uncle when I was young, and everything in his house was violet. He had a violet carpet, violet… it’s hideous. It was awful. And in a bizarre way the colour stuck with me, and I had to make use of that colour. In that sense it’s very simplistic, but that’s how things structure in my head. And as I said, today I’m going up the escalator and looking at orange stripes and working on a painting from it. It’s like a dictionary of images and thoughts – but mainly thoughts.
Since your work consists of the repetitive process of painting and ‘unpainting’, how do you decide when it’s time to stop?
I could do it indefinitely… but you can’t take it too far. [I decide with] partly intuition, partly craft. You know, constantly, people will talk about my work [in relation to] spirituality and beauty. And I like beauty, but beauty is different to everyone. I constantly try and make something that’s very difficult to look at. It’s partly knowing when to stop and it’s partly through [learning] historically that if you go too far with it… and physically, how much more you can do with it? There’s a painting in my studio that I return to every two years and paint it again and again; that has been painted four or five times. So, it’s a certain amount of repetition, and then there’s a moment when you take it too far. But it’s tempting to go back [and paint more].
Do you think living and working in Edinburgh has an influence on your work?
The great thing for me working in Edinburgh is that I do a lot of travelling after work – I try and keep it down. [The city] affords me anonymity to get on with the work, to develop the painting without people watching, and I kind of need that space. It’s a nice place to live because I have the countryside 10 minutes away. I can go to the mountain in half an hour or I can be down at the beach.
Do you need tranquillity to create this type of work?
I personally need tranquillity. I need peace of mind, but I also need time without interruption. Years ago, I thought about [setting up] a studio in London – my gallery’s saying ‘you should be in London’ or ‘you should be in New York’. I love going to London and New York, but I think the constant interruption in the studio [would] make it quite difficult: you get a lot of people travelling through who are genuinely interested in seeing [your] work, it’s quite difficult to say: “No, you can’t come to the studio.” The good thing about Edinburgh is that, when somebody is coming up to Edinburgh to see the work, I know they’re very serious, I know they want to spend time.
Callum Innes’s solo exhibition is at Edouard Malingue Gallery until Apr 21.