Callum Eaton in Depth About His Art, Street Furniture, Life & More

by Rubén Palma
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Callum Eaton (b. 1997, Bath, UK), lives and works in London. He completed his undergraduate study in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College in 2019. Eaton’s painting practice combines a mastery of photorealistic rendering with a conceptual critique of contemporary culture and 21st-century society. In his latest body of work, Eaton turns his attention to the almost obsolete ATMs (automated teller machines) that adorn the high streets of the United Kingdom. Once at the cutting edge of capitalist technology and the consumer economy, these cash points are now all but redundant, relics of an age pre-Chip and PIN or contactless payments. Evoking formalism, cubism and the aesthetics of geometric abstraction, Eaton’s hand-painted portrayals invite interaction with trompe-l’œil temptation and false financial promises. In an art world increasingly obsessed with price tags, sales figures and auction results, Eaton’s ATMs serve as a sardonic, satirical reminder that perhaps cash is still king after all.

Hi Callum! Thank you for sitting down with me! First question that I always ask. How does a regular day look like for you in London?

A regular day for me usually starts with a cycle/walk to the studio, followed a coffee to get the day started. Then comes the dreaded check to see if the area I want to work on is dry and that I have all the colours I need and if not another trip to the art shop followed by a well deserved cigarette.

During the week my days revolve around the studio as I spend all day there. I’m essentially a 9-5 painter, I like the structure of that day but when deadlines are fast approaching it’s not uncommon for me to be in the studio late into the night.

I’m curious. Growing up, what kind of kid were you? What did you enjoy doing, and how did you spend your time?

Restless would be an understatement. I always wanted to be doing something, mostly outside but if I was stimulated I was an angel. I definitely enjoyed structure as a child, knowing what we were doing, where we were going to do it and what after. I think I’ve calmed down a bit but old habits die hard.

So when did you start painting? And when did you start taking becoming an artist serious?

I came to art pretty late. I was 17 before I even started to take an interest in it. I made a drawing on a family holiday and my mum told me it was better than my older sisters. Who said abit of sibling rivalry was a bad thing.

Let’s talk about your paintings now. You have a very distinctive and recognizable hyper-real style. When did you start to develop it?

Honestly right from that first drawing on that family holiday. It was a realistic portrait of a man with a beard. Obviously my technique and concepts have developed since then but that was the origin of it. 

I’ve always enjoyed being methodical and strategic in how I make a painting. Probably part responsible to my parents; my mum is a textiles teacher and my dad is an architect. 

There’s also something in the fact that it’s a style of art that is open to all. You don’t need to read a thesis to take something away from my pictures. I’ve always aimed to make a painting that the professor of fine art and my mum could chat about and neither be condescending towards the other. 

So when did your fascination with objects such as ATM’s, elevators, laundry machines, phone booths, and vending machines begin? And what makes you want to shine a light on something people pass by everyday without giving it a second thought or even noticing it?

The fascination began with a single painting of an ATM. I had wanted to make a painting that bridged the gap between a sculpture and a painting; a painted ready made. I was fascinated at the time by Gary Humes “Hospital Door” series (still am tbh) and how an object so obvious could make such a powerful painterly impact. The cash machine was the perfect fit as it was an object that already had the same proportions as a canvas. I exhibited the painting and to my amazement a drunk friend of mine actually thought it was a real ATM. The way he engaged with it and the trompe l’oiel nature of the painting struck something in me. 

The other objects I have painted all came from a similar place. They are all almost redundant street furniture; relics of a time gone by. Their use is already in question and then by painting them any use they once had becomes void.

There is something inherently human about these in between spaces. None of these objects are ever a final destination, just part of the stage set of this simulation.

Can you tell me about the tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, and how it has influenced you?

It’s a tale of a painter who paints a still life so realistic that the birds come down and try to each the grapes off of it. I guess in my case the birds were drunk friends and the grapes were cash. 

Greek mythology does have a place in my practice. For example in a recent painting of a passport photobooth there is a reference to the myth Diana and Acteon with the drapery of the curtain. 

Any particular details you look for when plotting which motif is going to be the next protagonist of your canvas?

There is always a hook for me, whether that be pictorial, conceptual or practical. I get sent images of cash machines all the time and often they don’t have that “thing”. It’s almost impossible to put my finger on what it is but when all the elements collide in the right image you just know. 

Iv’e read a bunch of your previous interviews, and in them, “street furniture” have been mentioned once or twice. Can you tell me a little bit about that phrase and what it means to you?

The objects themselves are often found in the streets. It’s as simple as that. I don’t like to work hard to find my subjects, it feels too forced. I like the objects to be something so familiar to me that I almost can’t see it for what it is. Often cycling to the studio or walking to meet a friend I can stumble across an amazing painting. I like the idea that I could potentially unlock a careers worth of subject matter just by taking a different route to the pub. 

So before delving into memorializing these mandatory iconic street machines, you were actually doing portrait paintings, with a special detail to hands. What made you stray away from that, and  shift your focus towards street furniture?

Funnily my attitude towards the objects is very similar to that when I paint people. I consider both a kind of portrait. I am always looking to portray THAT individual vending machine, of THIS exact elevator, with all is specific scratches and signs of wear. They are portraits of objects. 

If we we’re to dig a little deeper into your motifs, have you ever thought about the fact that ATM’s, phone booth’s, and laundry machines, are really hard to come by, and almost doesn’t exist anymore? If so, what are your thoughts on that?

They’re definitely being phased out. In a cashless world ATMs no longer have much of a place, without cash how do you use a telephone box, in a health conscious world vending machines seem outdated. 

My paintings will act as a certain type of social archeology in times to come. But for now I am more interested in helping people see the beauty in their everyday surroundings. 

In one of your other interviews you talk about the locations of your motifs. The in-between and nowhere places. Same this with the elevators, when you’re in-between floors. Can you elaborate on that for me?

The objects I paint aren’t on any heritage tour maps. They aren’t sites of interest, they exist in liminal spaces; airports, waiting rooms and office lobby’s. Something interesting seems to happen when you shine a light on these places. 

Can you also walk me through your creative process. From beginning, to end result?

I always start with a photograph, sometimes snapped casually on a night out or sometimes it can be a planned out mission. Then I take it back to the studio, figure out the crop and get the correct the canvas size. Then there is a lot of measuring, taping and cutting with a scalpel directly onto the canvas. Then I start painting. Sometimes it feels more like I’m making an architectural blue print. 

So you’ve got a solo exhibition in April, at Duvé gallery in Berlin, titled “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” how did that come about? And what’s the story behind the title?

So the title of the show “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” came about very recently. I have been making works for my debut Berlin show for the past 5 months and the running thread between all the works only made itself apparent during the last few paintings.

All the works depict faulty, broken or out of order objects. There is a lack present in all of the paintings. An oversized telephone smashed by a frustrated user, an elevator that can’t be accessed because of a geometric metal grate denying use, an escalator bearing a red tape that warns of the dangers of trying to use it, a out of order urinal covered in cellophane and hand written note asking us politely to not use it.

There is an apathy present in the works; what am I supposed to do. The title comes from the well known English saying. If something is already sufficient, don’t go trying to fix it. The irony is that all the objects depicted don’t perform their function, they aren’t sufficient, they need attention. An attention that is perhaps mirrored by the viewers own need for attention.

Callum Eaton show by Brynley Odu Davies

How do you approach color?

I follow the photograph. 

How do you deal with creative blocks? 

Go to the studio and work as well as conversations with those whose opinions I trust. 

What motivates you?

The best painting is yet to come and no matter how much you plan, you never know when it’s going to happen.

Alright Callum. I always ask these two questions at the end of an interview. The first is. What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?

Damn, that’s a tough one. Right now I’m going to say moonlight. I only watched it very recently and everything from the way it was shot to the repetition of colours in the movie captivated me. 

Wes Anderson is also an obvious choice as his framing and cropping has been a big influence on my paintings. 

The second is. What song(s) are you currently listening to the most right now?

A lot of Dean Blunt at the moment. Kokoroko is a firm studio favourite. I’m not a playlist king of guy, I just have my liked songs that I am adding to all the time. 

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