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Callum Innes, Exposed Painting Dioxazine Violet’, 2005, oil on canvas

It is difficult to destroy the myth that art history is a slow unfolding of geist, a pageant of ‘the new’ with art riding high at the head of the procession. The mini retrospective of paintings by Callum Innes at the Fruitmarket critiques the dominance of grand linear narrative in art history, presenting canvases that are in a direct dialogue with abstract expressionist and early minimalist works.

When art is characterised or refigured as an eternal return (not necessarily of the traumatic real) the inroads an artist makes continually re-write history, perform it, with the object as evidence of this. The works continue the formalist exploration of the stuff of painting, with the systematic application and removal of oil, the movement of the paint and the relationship between figure and ground becoming of central importance. Some of the ‘Exposed’ and ‘Formed’ paintings quote Newman’s zips, with the revealed line kicking the ground back, making us aware of the surface itself. Yet, these appear to be the least successful of Innes’s oeuvre. Tonally his ‘Agitated Vertical’ 2006 seems off, and something cheaply organic and anthropomorphic creeps into ‘Formed Painting No. 2’ 1991, though this time the colour works. Innes hopes for a human element in his paintings, but it is there anyway—no need to force it. It’s in the most abstract canvases, in ‘Resonance’ 2004, his silky ‘copy’ of Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ 1913, because our presence puts it there when we stand in front of it.

The copy reveals the illusory nature of the original. Innes ‘quotes’ abstract expressionism, as Mieke Bal would say. This is not merely an appropriation or a nostalgic re-working, but a process demonstrating that every appropriation is a re-appropriation, a misappropriation in the sense that it is freed from the imaginary bonds of a pristine context. The art object, Innes’ or those of the Rothko or Newman he is obviously enamoured with, is never locked into the tomb of the past, as if history were a rigid framework that shoves the past further away from us. Absolute meaning through unmediated access is always beyond us; to find it in the historical context only shifts the ontological ‘blame’ or art object’s ‘cause’.

The formal links are endless: ‘Resonance 17’ 2004’, shows the relationship between Velasquez’ ruffs and impressionistic lace, with white paint and its absence falling upward to the top of the canvas. The ‘Monologue’ series develops Frankenthaler’s turpentine-soaked technique, invokes Jasper Johns’s turps-washed areas (‘In Memory of My Feelings’, 1961 and ‘Diver’, 1963), and are compositionally reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s ‘Uran’ series of 1989. The ‘Exposed Paintings, Dioxazine Violet’ canvases are the most successful works in the show, with an accidental yet intricate edges defying gravity. But they are hard to see through the dull orange haze of the gallery lights. They are ‘Innes by numbers’—something very difficult has been made to look easy.

Alex Kennedy is art editor of The List