It is along the edges, where traces of vivid colour bleed into the fabric, that one senses, beneath the austere minimalism of his paintings, an undercurrent of sensuality. There is an impressive constancy to Callum Innes’ work, the severe orchestration of his monochrome blocks and almost white fields, although the near total elimination of residual stains and washes in his recent paintings carries them further than before into the territory of Judd and Ryman. This is particularly so where he pushes towards the limits of his method, where smooth white paint abuts thin white undercoat ; in one of these only a thin central band of pigment remains behind on an emptied field, like a pale echo of Barnet Newman’s ‘Onement’.
They are a clever play on addition and subtraction, though the tension between the two is uneven, especially in the largest canvases where the opaque white areas remain flat rather than recessive, making it hard for the dark opaque blocks to vie with their blank expanses. It works better in those smaller canvases where there is a 50/50 split between paint and field, especially in the blue one where the finest blue stain allows the eye to tip off the painted edge on the right into the depthless erased space on the left.
But above all it is in his watercolour series that the tension between presence and absence truly comes alive, and where the colourist comes out to play. Layers of bright pigment are overlaid, only displaying their separate identities (carmine, magenta, cerulean) at the margins, while the centre ground is removed to leave a vaporous residue, something that, despite the emphasis on serial process, reveals a more sensuous trait. The paintings resist any attempt to invest them with numinous connotations; despite their classical rigour, one wishes for something a little less occluded.
Callum Innes. Frith Street Gallery, London W1, until 1 July 2011.