A bit of healthy competition between siblings is usually no bad thing. For Bath-based painter Callum Eaton, when he realised he was better at drawing than his older sister, it certainly proved to be good motivation. It was while they were on holiday that he first started sketching, choosing subjects that were of interest to him at the time: “Love Island contestants, an empty tobacco pouch and my mother’s reading glasses.” Meticulously copying photographs, Callum found the pursuit “a great way to channel and harness my obsessive tendencies”. Turns out he was pretty good at it too, as he later went onto complete a degree in fine art at Goldsmiths College from which he graduated in 2019, having honed a contemporary realistic painting practice.
Callum’s work is instantly engaging. Largely a still life practice, he plucks objects from contemporary (often British) culture and depicts them with almost uncanny clarity. Often, it’s described as photorealism but that’s a label he rejected for a long time, he tells us: “In my view, it places too much emphasis on the technique, which for me is the vehicle for the content, not the content itself.” Today, he refers to what he does as the “tacky realism of modern life,” describing his style as “satirical but charming, gritty yet playful, I approach all my subjects with the same tongue-in-cheek flair. Everything is seen through my crude filter; it’s as if my teenage self is my target audience.” In turn, his portfolio features bottles of Stella with lilies in them, Waitrose bags, Colin the Caterpillar, nos canisters, lighters and parking tickets; a hilariously astute observation of modern life in the UK.
When deciding what to sit down and paint – a big decision considering oil is a slow medium – Callum tells us the question is always “why not?” He explains: “They are paintings of objects that you don’t think deserve to be rendered in oil paint, and my reasons for painting them are often just as simple; jokes that have been told one too many times at the pub, a chance encounter with an Instagram story or a memory stirred up by an object.” While admitting his subjects may not be “visually seductive elements of our everyday lives,” Callum says they’ve become “nourishment for my greedy and unforgiving eyes.” What he does is give the overlooked and banal – and often ugly – their 15 minutes of fame. Having spent time at Goldsmiths learning the history of painting, he now knows how to tactfully subvert that. “As an artist, I can give the same stoic grandeur of works of the old masters to a hole in the wall. I aim to be playfully disrespectful to a lineage I very much admire, but also can’t help but take the piss. I want to challenge your expectations of what an oil painting can be,” he outlines.
One painting, in particular, that seems to summarise Callum’s output is of Colin the Caterpillar. If this has somehow passed you by or you’re not from the UK, Colin is a much-beloved chocolate roll cake sold by Marks & Spencer, and earlier in the year, a controversy was sparked when Aldi released its own copycat version called Cuthbert. Seeing the uproar on social media, Callum felt compelled to document the moment in time. “It seemed to be the perfect summation of human behaviour: arguing the ridiculous and minute similarities of consumer goods, but this also had personal appeal. An encounter with this newly repositioned banal confectionary stirred up nostalgia in me. As a family, we have a Colin for each of our birthdays and have done for as long as I can remember, but this uncanny feeling of sentimentality and reminiscence clearly resonated with others,” he explains. He compares how Renaissance painters looked to flowers as a source of aesthetic beauty and to exemplify the transience of life to the way he now paints “pop-cultural detritus to show the absurdity of it”. Through brushstrokes in oil on canvas, Callum looks at these subjects “through the lens of an alien,” aiming to make others see these humble objects in a new light. “The ordinary, the quotidian and even the abject all become something worth paying attention to when I capture the beauty in the corners of the everyday,” he adds “My paintings are a document of what I notice. I am a passive observer, poking fun at the mess we leave in our wake.”
Although this approach is witty and perceptive, and the benefits of this pleasing juxtaposition are clear today, Callum recalls how at university he had to persevere in order to convince many others he was on the right path. “My time at Goldsmiths was invaluable as it gave me a thick skin and the critical rigour to stand up for my work as it was not considered ‘chic’ to be making oil paintings,” he explains. “I single-mindedly pursued the style and subjects that interested me the most as well as learning the language of contemporary art.” His determination paid off though, as Callum is currently part of an exhibition in the Scalpel in London, open until December. He also has a number of other shows planned in the city “with the creative collective Sons Of Craft, as well as an exhibition with a gallery I’m represented by, Studio Chapple, at MKII opening on the last weekend of October.” Alongside all this, he plans to keep busy in his shared studio overlooking the River Avon “developing my ongoing series of paintings of objects with a facetious humour”.
Callum Eaton: Single use (Copyright © Callum Eaton, 2020)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.