Nathan Eastwood's Work/Recreation/Freedom
Words: by Skye Sherwin 2014
The paintings in Nathan Eastwood’s exhibition Work/Recreation/Freedom conjure an unembellished workaday world of launderettes, greasy spoons and municipal rooms lined with functional moulded plastic chairs. His subject matter is what he finds around him, be that in the North Kentish towns where he grew up, the Bethnal Green streets near his London studio or in his home. It is resolutely ordinary and familiar to anyone, whether they are regulars or passers-by.
His social realism of misshapen satellite dishes and middle-aged men collecting laundry, looks back to the kitchen sink tragi-comedy of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, the small town melancholy evoked by The Smiths and Madness’s eulogies to unwashed cups and fresh newspapers, the simple stuff of Sunday Morning.
Stylistically meanwhile, there’s a kind of plain-speaking to Eastwood’s painting. His stripped-back palette of black, white and greys is minimalist and no-nonsense. It openly suggests photographic source material, while, rather than virtuoso photo-realism, visible brush marks are frank about the works’ status as painting. He typically works from a stash of hundreds of camera phone images, often taken surreptitiously on his tea breaks. These are cropped and shaded on his computer before being translated, with the aid of grids, onto board. Though meticulously realised in enamel, this straightforward, systematised approach, underlines that painting is work, as potentially satisfying or repetitive as other labour.
Yet for all Eastwood’s directness, there is a mystery, a nagging state of uncertainty in what he chooses to depict. There’re no homely knickknacks, no faded and curling posters for local nights out. Any Proustian whiff of fry-ups or detergent has been blown clean away. Nostalgic this is not. Though he often shows us transient spaces, they are not quite the non-places mythologised in the annals of supermodernity either, the super-market aisles or motorway to which personal associations fail to stick.
Certainly, Eastwood’s excision of too-specific details means that while he depicts traditionally working-class environments, his subjects refuse to be easily pinned down. In Interior, a woman is shown sitting at the front of a chasm of empty chairs, arranged in rows against a blank wall. Is she the first, last or only attendant in this enigmatic waiting room? Is it a job centre, a doctor’s reception or – as is in fact the case – a make-do place of worship for a newly established church? Ticket similarly leaves us in suspense. The piece of paper its protagonist stares hard at might be a travel card or a lottery slip. Has he won the big prize, or is he contemplating more money down the tube? Perhaps it’s simply out of date. Tacitly raising a question about art’s limitations, Eastwood’s subjects, so often painted from the back, remain inaccessible, their reality impermeable.
A different kind of uncertainty is evoked in two paintings of domestic life, DIY and Nook. In the first, a woman is seen from behind, before a panelled wall that veers from dark to light. A skewed mirror-image of the artist at work, she is painting and, given the work’s title and her lack of a professional decorator’s overalls, we might assume this is her home. Nook depicts another kind of downtime, with its lone figure huddled over a book at the bottom of the stairs. Many of Eastwood’s paintings conjure the in between moments that punctuate the working day, be that the portly flat-capped man in Break, who comically brings the title to life, captured with a biscuit poised before his open mouth, or the broom and shovel rested against a wall in Dad’s Broom. Positioned in this cycle of rest and toil, Eastwood’s evocations of home life suggest that, though without monetary value and whether spent housecleaning or watching TV, it is no less tied to the marketplace, a necessary space to replenish in a society where we live to work.
The artist’s vision is not without its moments of potential release, however, or even romanticism. the End/the Beginning depicts a thin wedge of sea meeting a vast dapple grey Thanet sky. It is a view that inspired Turner to painterly experiments that verged on abstraction. In Eastwood’s work it captures both something of the bleak awesomeness of nature that inspired earlier artists and a heart-pounding feeling that you’ve reached the end of the line.
The unknown, conjured in expanses of slick black paint whose depths seem both impenetrable and limitless, encroaches on his subjects too: the reading figure; a pigeon. Occupying a unique place in Eastwood’s exhibition, a single purely abstract work directly references Kasimir Malevich’s legendary depiction of the void, painting’s degree zero, The Black Square. Even in the years when socialist realism became the official art of Russia and abstraction was forbidden, the Russian Suprematist used this symbol as a signature in his paintings and correspondence. Within Eastwood’s socially conscious, realist work exploring the texture and rhythms of everyday life, it suggests both a statement of intent, and begs the question when does something end, and when does it begin?