No more multicoloured mud

It’s hard to please The List’s art critic, but one new exhibition has set him alight. Kennedy explains why Callum Innes’ paintings play a pivotal role in Scottish art.

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Is there a place for High Modernist Art in Scotland? Was there ever? ‘New York stole the idea of Modern art’, we are told hyperbolically by various writers, ‘and Scotland got left with the Scottish Colourists and their ilk.’

Scotland has no 20th century fin de siècle truly Modernist and avant-gardist tradition to speak of. (Does Mackintosh count? Ish.) No abstract explorations of the basic stuff of painting ?" line, colour, form, surface, etc. Anne Redpath’s Matisse inspired works did go some way to shake things up, but not far enough. We did get a hand-painted pop version of Abstract Expressionism in the work of Joan Eardlie, but it was always shackled to subject matter, and Craigie Aitchison tried it. But the closest we got was the multicoloured mud of the Scottish Colourists before Paolozzi’s pop pattern version in the 60s. It is no wonder that European High Modernism (think sexy, cooler than thou abstraction) and American Abstract Expressionist ‘colour field’ paintings (kind of the same as the European stuff but bigger) are making a comeback of sorts.

What can loosely be referred to as ‘colour field’ painting, pioneered by Rothko and Newman et al in 40s American Abstract Expressionism, was a continuation of the experiments with form that had been going on in mainland Europe.

So, can the new show of paintings by Edinburgh-based Callum Innes at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh be seen as evidence that ‘Edinburgh has stolen back the idea of Modern Art’? What does that mean in 2006? Innes creates works that would not have looked out of place in a New York gallery 60 years ago. But these images are not ‘copies’. They do not mimic the compositions of the artists they invoke. They are the depository of formal elements of a tradition, collages in paint that tie the disparate strands of Modernism to the present.

Is this allowed? Are we to pretend that everything from Jasper Johns to the present day didn’t happen? No Warhol? No Beuys? No Hirst or Emin? If history was some kind of grand narrative, then this kind of time travel would not be allowed. It would be seen as old in a world where old=bad, reactionary. But if the ‘new’ is a myth invented in a think tank by market researchers, and history is in process and is continually being re-written, then there is a place for these ‘quotations’. Only if they are good, of course. And Innes’ paintings are exceptionally good. It would be totally wrong to suggest that Innes’ works are ‘copies’. That would give the illusion that there was an ‘original’ in a pristine historical context waiting to be plundered. What is true is that art created after modernism exploits a temporal fold of the kind which allows Innes’ painting to operate. Like crime novelists after Agatha Christie, it’s perfectly possible to work within a framework of ideas, but to be totally different from its original pioneers.

A recent exhibition of work at Glasgow’s Tramway by the Young British Artist Keith Coventry shows how not to do it. His ironic take on the European Modernist tradition looked sophomoric, and suffered from that which it tried to critique: the notion of the artist as hero and myth maker, a conduit for the sublime. He acted as a knowing channel for a skeptical take on things, but still floated above it all like a transcendental subject. He seemed to find the Utopian element of Modernism hilariously naïve and ideologically dodgy. It is there, of course, but the artists usually came down on the side of socialist or communist doctrines rather than fascism. The Nazis thought most of it was degenerate and burnt great heaps of the stuff. Coventry’s ‘one liner art’ is very thin in this respect ?" there’s one dull, glib, supposedly witty thought underpinning his take on the modernist tradition. It’s the kind of art that makes you snort; it temporarily makes you think you are clever because you can laugh along at the artist’s joke. But you walk away not giving a damn.

By contrast, Innes’ new exhibition, continues an impressive lineage of formalist explorations into what painting is. In each canvas we see lessons learnt in the abstract work of some of the most significant painters. If it isn’t Rothko’s rich colour fields with soft but detailed edges it is Newman’s zips as the absence of paint, Pollock’s chained chaos and lyricism or Kelly’s throbbing, pure colours. At its best, it presents the most difficult passages of Modernist painting, made to look easy.

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 19 Nov

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