A RETURN to the primacy of colour – once so expensive that it was part of what made a painting precious – is reaping some stunning results.
Callum Innes: Works on Paper, 1989-2012
Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh
Matthew Draper: Time Lapse
Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh
Roland Fraser: New Works Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh
BEFORE the Reformation most commissioned pictures were religious. Perhaps that idea does not seem so remote, but the patron would very likely also have specified the colours and even the quantities in which they were to be used, and that really is a long way from our thinking now.
For us the autonomy of the artist is sacred. But colour was part of what made a painting precious. The most beautiful were also the most costly. Put in lots of them and your painting would not only be beautiful, but also conspicuously expensive.
This may have been all to the greater glory of God, but nevertheless it shows that colour really had an intrinsic value. Its beauty was a celebration. No painter would muddy their colour to create shadows. It was Leonardo who introduced that idea, and it took a long time for colour to recover the purity of that earlier vision. It was really only with Matisse and the Bauhaus painters that it finally reclaimed the autonomy it had enjoyed so long before.
A refugee to America from the Bauhaus, Josef Albers was one of the great modern masters of this newly autonomous colour. He created pictures of great beauty that are often just variations on a single hue within the simple format of a set of squares, one inside the other. Liberated like this, colour works like music and, as with music, the effect of such simplicity can be wonderfully satisfying.
Albers is spiritual father to Callum Innes, who has a major show at the Ingleby Gallery, Works on Paper, 1989-2012. Innes also uses pure colour to create images that seem simple, but are remarkably complex. With Innes, though, it is as though we have gone full circle back to those late medieval contracts. It is no longer a matter of price, nor of fulfilling the wish of a patron to display his wealth for the greater glory of God, but in his recent work he does name his paints, as though to pin down the special qualities, the value of each pigment.
Indeed, they occasionally give his pictures their titles. Cobalt Blue Light/Red Orange, for instance, or Scarlet Lake/ Cobalt Blue, are two in a series of watercolours where two colours are dissolved into each other within a rectangle and then lifted off to leave a translucent coloured space where the paper is tinted with a memory of their combination, but where the original pure hues are also still visible at the edges.
Exploiting the intrinsic value of colour and of the qualities revealed when different colours are associated, the 18 pictures in the series, all in the same format, make a subtle and very beautiful visual equivalent to the musical form of a theme and variations.
Thus colour can be like music. The painter is the composer and painting is his instrument, or indeed his orchestra. Callum Innes painted a series of pictures that he calls Exposed Paintings, in which he explores the instruments he has at his disposal. These are oil paintings, but there are also several here that he calls Exposed Watercolours, in which he pursues the same idea, exploring contrasts of solid and opaque, dark and light and the effect of the patterns of the brush.
These date from 1997, but from 1993 there are also a couple of untitled paintings that are simple blocks of pure colour carefully placed in the middle of a sheet of paper. The colour sings in all its purity, but it does not do so on its own. It gets a special lift from the transparency of the watercolour medium and the whiteness of the paper, that in consequence shines through from beneath. The way the paint is laid down registers too as subtle variations in the surface.
The same whiteness also surrounds it, providing a vivid contrast. In other pictures here he explores a wide range of the qualities of paint and paper. The Cento Series, for instance, is a group of large paintings all in the same format, a vertical rectangle with a 2:1 ratio of height to width, and in oil on paper. They are divided by a simple horizon whose position varies from picture to picture, but which in each case creates two areas differentiated by colour, by light and dark, and by the direction given it by the way the paint has been brushed on. It doesn’t sound like much, but when they are hung together as they are here, their variety is dramatic.
In his most recent work, Innes has used chalk to create pictures of even greater simplicity, a sheet of paper subdivided into two symmetrical rectangles, one a saturated colour, the other just white paper. Because chalk is soft and non-reflective it can give maximum value to a colour, or even to a simple, velvety black. Contrasted with the white paper, the effect is beautiful, contemplative simplicity.
At the Open Eye, concurrent shows by Matthew Draper and Roland Fraser both have something rather different to offer. Draper’s misty townscapes of Edinburgh are familiar, but recently he has embarked on a series of big sea pictures which include impressive stormy views of the Bass Rock. There are echoes of John Houston, perhaps, but nobody could paint the Bass Rock now without it being a homage to the painter who made it his own.
Fraser’s work is less familiar. It has often stood out in group shows and he has already had some success with commissions, but this is the first chance I, at least, have had to see his work in any quantity.
He works in wood, not any wood, but found wood, which displays its enigmatic history in its shape and on worn and battered surfaces of rubbed and peeling paint. He searches for promising pieces in skips and salvage yards. If he then simply assembled these so that the resulting composition suggested something like a figure, or had some other kind of picturesque association, it would be pretty old-hat, but he doesn’t. He disassembles each piece, carefully cataloguing its parts, and then reassembles them, intricately matching the parts, cutting and shaving them so that they look as though that is how they have always been. Where he began with something shabby and broken, he ends up with a perfectly flat rectangular object that hangs on the wall like a picture and indeed looks like a picture, so beautifully do all the shapes and colours work together. He makes a new order out of disorder, brings a kind of life back to the worn-out and rejected.
Prestongrange, for instance, is made up of vertical bands of blue, green and pink weathered paint, all irregular, but all matching each other so that there are no gaps. Another example, Barrow, is composed of 18 rectangular blocks that range from blue through purple to brown.
These blocks are all much the same size. Nevertheless they do not exactly match and so, to achieve overall regularity, the spaces between are filled with small blocks, cut to size, but also irregular so that in the whole composition small and large echo each other to create a greater unity. It is a bit like marquetry, but without any of the fussy tightness that limits its appeal. On the contrary, remarkably, these seem free and constantly inventive.
• Callum Innes runs until 14 July, Matthew Draper and Roland Fraser until 20 May.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West