Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Putting it on, taking it off

Callum Innes
Jensen Gallery
26 August - 20 September 2008

In this country the additive and subtractive processes of using materials to create artworks haven’t received the analytical attention as you might suppose they deserve, but in recent years ‘subtraction’ has been increasing its profile, in painting as well as sculpture.

Before I get to Innes I’m gong to meander a little. The links between the three artists I discuss here are obvious.

I first came upon the notion of ‘subtraction’ in the first Billy Apple work I ever experienced, a print room in Christchurch’s CSA which Billy had emptied out in 1975 as one stop on his national tour – all light fittings, switches, drawing pins – every superfluous item removed. Not only was the natural light and austerity very beautiful, but I was particularly impressed by Wystan Curnow’s wall statement:

The result of subtraction is absence. But absence cannot be defined as the result of subtraction. The reason being that absence does not necessarily imply there was anything there to begin with.

I really like this statement because it deals with what is visually evident. It insists that you think about what is before you – and what might be missing.

Judy Millar is another artist who employs subtraction, not as sculpture (like Apple) but as part of a painting process that is meant to exemplify irony. In her 2003 catalogue How to Paint Backwards, Anthony Byrt in an essay discussing the wiping off processes claims that her paintings ‘carry that sense of the viewer being able to penetrate the fluid surface with relative ease and it’s this fluidity that creates a desire for immersion rather than just surface contact.(p.5)’

So what is the significance of this ‘immersion’? I'm probably over simplifying but Byrt talks about the ‘weird spatial relationships between gesture and ground’ that cause underlying blocks of colour to ‘appear to be overpainting above her marks (p.6).’ The ‘painting backwards’ process is intended to deconstruct any expressionist connotations by acting out the role of making gestures ‘of expressive self’ instead of making marks that functioned sincerely as ‘an expressive act of self (p.3)’.

Yet in Millar’s work, like Apple’s, the process is not readily apparent. Though talked about as ‘looking back’ and embodying ‘inside–out-ness’, the material evidence is hard to perceive. The viewer needs a textual or verbal guide to understand a method that is so subtle it would reveal itself more by touch than by eye.

Not so for the related processes in Scottish painter Callum Innes’ production. The principles involved are comparatively detectable, though the number of turpentine washes needed to remove brushed on paint would be impossible to ascertain from the smudgy exhibited traces. Sometimes he leaves no traces at all so that some once paint-covered surface areas look completely untouched.

On Jensen's ground floor there are 15 works. If we analyse there are basically five sorts of painting:

(1.) The well known Exposed Painting series where the stretcher is divided up so that one rectangle of horizontally brushed on oil paint is left untouched. Some areas of white gesso look totally virgin, while the rectangle below shows traces of repeated vertical dribbles and thin stains of diluted pigment. Sometimes plummeting down from the bottom righthand corner of the painted rectangle is a solitary, smoky, curving, linear lick of dissolved pigment. Enigmatic and gorgeous.
Often there are varied treatments of oblong edges too.

(2.) The diptyches. Each is a stretcher divided in half; one side painted and left intact, the other with partially paint removed, so that the canvas looks smudged with faintly blurry traces. Sometimes the sides of the stretcher reveal paint remnants.

(3.) Two metre high works on paper that are framed and under glass. These look like bark patterns, like some sixties Australian ‘tree-based’ abstractions. Dramatic vertical rectangles, they have rows of repeated negative ‘brush’ lines erased into the paint.

(4.) Large smoky canvases covered with vertical lines that are sometimes so fine they even look scraped. They are powerfully evocative, beautifully composed with large portions of stained, ’removed’ canvas. The angular shapes make them vaguely reminiscent of the American artist Clyfford Still. They could initially be mistaken for charcoal drawings.

(5.) These speckled canvases have painted on shellac that has then been dissolved to leave specks and little crumbling islands of solid matter. They (the islands) seem thrown onto the canvas but are not. The surface has been painted first and then a solvent thrown on, I suspect, to leave eventually untouched grains of residue.

Innes’ trademark rivulets, stains and trickles are very seductive, especially when he combines his processes with careful placement of solid or semi-dissolved rectangles. Like those of Bernard Frize and Alexis Harding, Innes’s shows are a treat. It is always a pleasure to engage with the pigment application processes and procedural logics such innovative painters invent.

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