Hettie Inniss Transports Us to Her Floating World

Dreamlike landscapes and eerie memories weave together, forming a captivating blend of the past and present at London’s GRIMM Gallery

BY Tom Morton in Exhibition Reviews | 20 JUN 24

In her essay ‘Memory, Creation and Writing’ (1984), the American novelist Toni Morrison considers what it means to deliberately recall an episode from the past. This act, she writes, ‘is a form of willed creation. It is not an effort to find out the way it really was – that is research. The point is to dwell on the way it appeared and why it appeared in that particular way.’ Morrison’s words might serve to describe the practice of the young British painter Hettie Inniss, who, in her debut solo exhibition at GRIMM, London, presents a suite of canvases depicting streets, landscapes and architectural interiors emptied of human life, each one painted from memory in a luxurious yet faintly sinister palette dominated by glowing ambers and golds. The more time we spend with these works, the more their still, airless worlds feel subject to a kind of dream logic: long shadows fall where they shouldn’t; light condenses into floating orbs of pale pigment; and reflections seem to land on surfaces that aren’t there. 

Hettie Inniss
Hettie Inniss, To You, 24 Years from Now, 2024, acrylic, pigment, oil, oil stick and sand on canvas, 1.8 × 2.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam, London and New York; photograph: Jack Hems

While the titles of a couple of Inniss’s canvases point to specific geographical locations – Hitchin Market and London Feels Sad in the Rain (all works 2024) – the places she paints mostly go unnamed. Displayed in the gallery’s window space, Bleached might portray an outside swimming pool surrounded by plants. If so, the smashing of sunlight against its waters seems to have shaken up the scene’s constituent colours as though they were pieces of glitter in a kaleidoscope. Passages of leafy green pigment hang suspended in the air, the liquid pool coagulates into a coppery mass and, at the edges of the composition, a charcoal darkness gathers, threatening to swallow up everything in sight. Where, here, might we find our footing? Perhaps the truth is that the past – which we are fated to recall in the present, to perpetually remake – can never provide us with solid ground on which to stand. 

Hettie Inniss
Hettie Inniss, Bleached, 2024, oil, oil stick and sand on canvas, 1.3 × 1 m. Courtesy: the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam, London and New York; photograph: Tom Carter

In To You, 24 Years After, a blue bowl sits on a table in a domestic interior, every surface of which appears gilded or marbled or jewelled with light. The work’s pictorial depth is challenged by a flat, archway-shaped form to the right. We might read this as a lacuna in a memory, a blank space that may never be filled in. A pendant painting, To You, 24 Years from Now, guides us down a long corridor, in an anonymous hotel or apartment block. Lined with closed doors (what secrets, we wonder, lurk behind them?), it terminates in a hovering, luminescent swirl. Is this a miniature galaxy or a portal to some other place or time and, if so, where will it lead us? As with all the works in Inniss’s show, there are no people in sight, but we feel their absence, almost hear the ghostly echo of their footsteps along the passage, smell their lingering perfume. To the left of the composition, a purple shadow climbs a wall, and sprouts into a tall, overhanging tree. We get to thinking of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, over-run with brambles, and of how quickly our world would return to a verdant paradise were humanity to disappear. 

Hettie Inniss
Hettie Inniss, The Sting Between the Two Trees, 2024, oil, pigment and sand on linen, 80 × 181 cm. Courtesy: the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam, London and New York; photograph: Jack Hems

While Inniss paints from memory, she seems disinclined towards the conspicuously autobiographical. Given that she was born at the turn of the millennium, the individuals to whom she addresses To You, 24 Years After and To You, 24 Years from Now might be her once and future selves but, if so, this remains undisclosed. I suspect that, for Inniss, recollection is a process through which a self is not made but rather dissolved. There is much to fear in this, hence perhaps the lingering atmosphere of disquiet that suffuses her work. And yet, as her restless painterly invention demonstrates, there is much freedom, too.

Hettie Inniss’s ‘Rememories from the Floating World’ is at GRIMM, London, until 20 July 

Main image: Hettie Inniss, London Feels Sad in the Rain (detail), 2024, oil, oil stick, pigment on canvas, 1 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam, London and New York; photograph: Jack Hems

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.