Edinburgh Festival '99: A brush with abstraction

The artist Callum Innes has turned his back on the London art world for Scotland. By Giles Sutherland
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The Independent Culture
The first thing you notice about Callum Innes's studio - situated in a lane just minutes away from the crowds in Edinburgh's Princes Street - is its quiet anonymity. Inside, the space is clean and defined, but not stark; on one wall hang rows of paint-brushes ordered by size and function. Elsewhere there is none of the everyday clutter frequently found in other artists' studios. This is a clear white space of the mind, a place in which to think and to work, somewhere Innes feels "more at home than anywhere else".

Innes, who first came to international attention as one of the four nominees for the 1995 Turner Prize, is relaxed and remarkably unfazed by the hype which subsequently surrounded his work. At 37, he is one of the most successful and talented of Scotland's younger artists, with a string of solo exhibitions in Britain, the United States and Europe. Although he has shown in his native country in the past - the show at Inverleith House in 1996 won the Edinburgh Festival visual arts award - his present exhibition at the Ingleby Gallery is his first venture in a private space on home soil.

Innes's work is characterised by his use of colour, the inter-relationship of shapes on his canvases, as well as his distinctive working methods. Following in the tradition of abstract Minimalist painters such as Robert Ryman, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and Lucio Fontana, he has taken the language of these various schools and made it his own. "When you step into a language it's about taking it forward rather than reinventing it," he says.

In many of his canvases, areas of the painted surface have been dissolved with turpentine, a technique described as "unpainting". Because the works are abstract, individuals tend to bring their own readings to them, a process which Innes welcomes and encourages.

For some critics, these pieces are meditations on the nature of time and space; for others they are formalised essays on landscape. In others again they induce feelings of contemplation and spirituality; the word "beauty" is also frequently found in discussions of Innes's work. They are open places for the mind to create its own "meaning", but it would be wrong to think of them as blank receptacles to be loaded with any and every interpretation.

The paintings fall into discrete and easily distinguishable series, revealed by their titles, which also give some clue about their composition or creation: Isolated Form; Resonance; Monologue and Formed Painting. A title from the present show - Exposed Painting Charcoal Grey, Red/Yellow Oxide on White 1999 - is more than merely descriptive. "Exposure" alludes to the removal of paint by turpentine but also leaves room for other interpretations. The "exposure" of the processes of painting, certainly, but also the exposure of the artist to scrutiny. For these are not mere essays in geometric and tonal composition; they are intuitive and deeply personal statements which cannot be neatly disassociated from the artist himself.

Innes often works concurrently on several paintings, sometimes finishing a series all together when he feels he has pushed the possibilities to their limit, as was the case with the eight pieces which comprise the Isolated Form series. Or he will resume working on a series after long periods, as was the case with his Shellac series, characterised by the placing of paint on a shellac surface which has not completely dried: "I left them for three years and I returned to them three years ago and completely changed them... they became much more energetic."

This ability to extend the boundaries of his work is also accompanied by a ruthless capacity for self-criticism. Innes has chosen to live and work in Scotland - he cites the high cost of housing and the difficulties of travel as disincentives for living in London. He has also resisted tempting offers to move to New York or Europe. He regards Scotland as his home and as being fundamentally important to his work, preferring the anonymity it affords, which in turn allows him to focus on his work. "I know a lot of people in London who have appointments with dealers two or three times a week. I couldn't do that. It's really nice when somebody does want to come to the studio... they've made the effort to come here," he says.

At a time when increasing attention is being paid to the construction of the new Scottish Parliament building designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles, Innes engages in the debate with quiet reserve, admitting that if public artworks are to be commissioned, he would readily be prepared to be included in the process - (his name has already been mentioned, along with Ian Hamilton Finlay, as a possible candidate). He believes that it would be necessary to appoint a curator to take charge of the overall commissioning process, "somebody who's very serious, who understands contemporary art and who is also going to make sure that they find the best in Scottish art".

There is no doubt that Innes's work has a high seriousness - a quality which is reflected in his whole approach. That his life revolves around his art is a factor which he admits makes his wife's life hell: "I was away on holiday for a month. It's too long for me; after two weeks I want to be back here." In an age where he who shouts loudest, with the best soundbite, captures the attention of a skittish media, and where artists compete for attention with increasingly outlandish gestures, Innes's paintings have a quiet elegance, not drawing attention to themselves, but retaining a dignity long since lost by much art.

Callum Innes, The Ingleby Gallery, Carlton Terrace, Edinburgh (0131- 556 4441) to 11 September

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