Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Painting the People

'Art is not something to, you know, superimpose over everyday life if it’s any good it has always come from everyday life.' 
Jack Smith



Melancholy, jangly-jazz music underscores moodily monochrome everyday is like Sunday tracking shots. Buses drive through the Maudlin Street backstreets of industrial Northern towns where Tom Courtney’s skinny borstal boy is long distance running through loneliness to dissent. Whilst  Bardo blonde-beehive-backcombed, mini-skirting, stiletto-cobblestone-clicking teen-girls rage against their apron-pinny-ed matriarchs. All the fragmentary mise-en-scenery of post war Kitchen Sinkery, that much Morrisey loved, lost land, when a Working Class hero was still something to be has long since faded to grey.
'In all working class films of the 1960s, life’s winner is the boy with the gleam in his eye - roughs of self recognition and blessed profiles. They will not accept conservative limits, and their selfish motivations or crude nerve are both justified by the fact that they give nothing but look everything.' Morrisey Autobiography.

In Chavs the Demonisation of the Working Class, Owen Jones reminds us that: 'There has never been an age when the Working Class were properly respected, let alone glorified. From the Victorian era to World War II, working class people were rarely mentioned in books. When they appeared at all, they were caricatures.'

Yet for a brief, revolutionary moment in the post war period in Britain when Labour (ah! Labour unimaginable now but then still a Socialist ideal) won a landslide victory, novels, plays and films began to focus on the lives of the proletariat. Desire and empathy became located within the lives and struggles of ordinary people. Coronation Street was a real milestone when it was first launched in 1960, for the first time a TV series revolved around sympathetic, working class characters. It was rooted in the wave of so called Northern Realism, a new genre of film, which included Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, Room at the Top and Cathy Come Home.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning


From the Thatcherite Far Right, through the blighted New Rose, to Neo Conservative cons, from Harry Enfield’s 1990’s depictions of Wayne and Waynetta Slob, to the current wave of programmes such as Benefit Street, and On the Dole and Proud, the Working Class have shifted in popular mythology from salt to scum of the earth. 

'Smearing poorer working class people as idle, bigoted, uncouth and dirty makes it more and more difficult to empathise with them. The people at the very bottom, in particular, have been effectively dehumanised. And why would anyone want to improve the conditions of people they hate?' Owen Jones 

SCENE SHIFT – Domestic Realism 

London, July 2014, on a hallucinatory, heatwavey Friday afternoon capitalism’s buzz reverberates around the bustling tourist-trinketry of Baker Street, humming  through the zero working hours disappointment haunted all my dreams basements of restaurant, hotel or office block. However down in the Crypt of the Anglican St Marleybone Parish Church an alternative agenda is being played out. Here Nathan Eastwood, flush from winning the inaugural East London painting prize, is showing his first solo exhibition Domestic Realism. 

Upstairs the main church, all white and goldness, marble mosaic floored, bejewelled and chandeliered, Neo-Classically glitters in all its Middle Englishly prosperously-posh glacial glory. 


There is no such glitz in the basement Crypt where Eastwood’s collection of Domestic Realism paintings are on display. The metaphor of upper and lower orders is unavoidable but the prosaic, whisper-quiet low ceilinged crypt is nonetheless a psychologically interesting backdrop to Eastwood’s subjects. 

In Dave a brooding, bald man holding a rolled up cigarette, wearing a Lonsdale sweatshirt, looms out from an anonymous black background. Like a filmic close-up used to convey characters’ emotions, Lonsdale man is shown slightly off centre, the whole weight of his posture, the fact that he is holding his head, obscuring his face with his hand suggests some inner turmoil. Eastwood has stated that he is a 'reductive painter' employing a minimalist aesthetic. This reductivism leaves the viewer free to imagine their own narratives filling in the back-stories to these everyman characters. The main narrative of Dave, however, can be read not as a story, but more simply as a melancholic essence. The Kristevian Black Sun where we 'see the shadow cast on the fragile self, hardly dissociated from the other, precisely by the loss of that essential self.' 

In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning a guttersnipe slice of grey mosaic cement pavement suggests not only a link with the Social Realism of the Kitchen Sink films, a linguistic signifier both of the boozing, brawling and inevitable falling over of the main don’t let the bastards grind you down Arthur Seaton character, but also as a reminder of the overlooked or unremarkable. This is particularly evident in another painting of a humble pigeon, the holy ghost of urbanism, defiled, derided as vermin, camouflaged out of importance. Eastwood’s pigeon not only aesthetically suits his muted colour palette choice but hints at a societal, subordinate slice of life that Eastwood rescues from obscurity and holds up to a new painterly scrutiny. 

The Nook

In The Nook, an overtly expressionist/filmic arrangement of shadow and scenery places a man reading a book on a gloomy stairwell, the viewer/voyeur becomes intruder, the only light (white) in the painting falls upon the pages of the book which the reader is so intent upon. The scene suggests perhaps a hotel worker catching up on some studying in a brief break from his duties. The overriding impression is one of solitude, sadness and empathy. 

Eastwood has stated that central to his painting practice is a re-examination of social realism as part of a contemporary practice. His grey paintings on MDF board using humble humbrol 'the paint used for radiators in domestic interiors' are everyday slices of real life. 

Using a minimalist palette adds a de-gaudyfiying edge, a refusal to luxuriate in the painterly process, in Eastwood’s paintings the people ARE the painting. There is a subjective ordering of figure and foreground, all is gathered in to the central tenant, the political imperative of attempting to define a new realism which places the lives of ordinary people at its core. Although aware of and supportive of Owen Jones’s analysis that the working class has been erased out of any kind of sympathetic cultural representation, Eastwood is not attempting to paint the working class, for as he himself says 'it's difficult to pin-point exactly what can be defined now by this term'. The paintings begin from photographs which Eastwood takes with a camera phone that focus on 'real life human conditions and everyday activities … walking around in public spaces, noticing rubbish scattered around, picking up the kids from school, surfing the internet and watching question time, I think yes, this is real; this is what I know and so this is what I want to paint.'

In Capitalist Realism Mark Fisher asks 'is it now easier to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism?' The choices for a politically engaged artist these days are many and varied and the need to chip away at the many inequalities and mis-representations so deeply rooted within our current time more urgent than ever. Nathan Eastwood nails his colours to the mast, his choice is to re-present the slow-mo, subjective, emotive ability of painting in a new contemporary call to arms. 

Alex Michon, August 2014

Nathan Eastwood (Solo Exhibition) 
Domestic realism 1st – 31st July 
The Crypt, Marylebone Parish Church, Marylebone Street

Nathan Eastwood is now working towards a Solo Show at the Nunnery Gallery (October – December 2014) 

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