Callum Eaton’s Work Makes Me Sad and That’s a Good Thing

Review / August 2023
Callum Eaton’s Work Makes Me Sad and That’s a Good Thing 
by Georgie Bancroft

Walking through Callum Eaton’s first London solo show, titled Look But Don’t Touch and hosted at Carl Kostyál’s Saville Row space until the 9th of September, I am overcome by an existential despair. Walking among the life-sized images of vending machines and public phones, I am reminded of these products’ relative obsolescence; their newly achieved status as “vintage items” rather than that which is, at worst, a ubiquitous advertisement-cum-convenience, and at best, a necessity in contemporary life.

But I don’t mourn the machines themselves; every Coca-Cola vending machine and disused ATM machine (another common appearance in Earton’s work) can rust into oblivion for all I care. Of course there’s a sadness that comes with the loss of things that are emblematic of one’s childhood — we all know the satisfying refreshment of an ice-cold Coke dispensed from one of these towering beverage behemoths — but that tinge of wistfulness lasts only a few minutes at most. What makes me sad – and what Eaton has discussed himself in METAL Magazine — is the visualisation of late capitalism’s movement towards total invisibility, and the blistering speed with which technology has not aided our own experience of globalised economies, but instead, made them largely inscrutable to the average person. In very real ways, the outmoded nature of vending machines, public phones, and ATMs demonstrates how our interactions with global brands and with money writ large has stopped being mediated by physical, and thus personal interactions, and has become largely imperceptible. We still use money and are aware of the presence of these global conglomerates, but they are reduced to all-important pixels on a screen, dictating how and what we want without us every really knowing.

This intersects with a major facet of Eaton’s work, at least in Eaton’s own terms: the ability of “average people” to understand the foundation of his practice. Eaton’s mode of painting is particularly well suited to this: the hyper-realism he is able to achieve is remarkable in its technical achievement, an element that often dogs those committed to either abstraction or multi-medial efforts, but allows Eaton to shine among those who may be approaching his work from outside of the arts. That is to say: it is clear what he is painting, and it is clear that the way in which he does it is difficult. The necessary rigor of this is not lost on the casual viewer, thus making his critiques all the more available to a “commoner” – those who may feel the effects of the systems he is commenting on the most acutely.

In many ways, Eaton has fashioned himself as a mouthpiece for the “common man”; the appeal that he makes within his work is not to the powerbrokers who understand the disappearance of daily goods within a broader cosmos of capital movement, but to those who understand the obsolescence of these daily items as a the focal point of a shift that leaves the fruits of their labor – and their engagement with global hegemonies – as increasingly abstracted.

So yeah, Callum Eaton’s work makes me sad, because it has realized, in stark, hyper-realist clarity, the ways in which the world has moved away, perhaps out of grasp, from people on the streets, in the shops, in our communities and even ourselves. But I am glad he has made it; in the face of a grave disappearance, this clarity is ultra-visible; unmissable.

Image Credits: Image 1-3: Installation View: Callum Eaton, Look But Don't Touch, August 2023. Photography by Ben Westoby. Image courtesy of the artist and Carl Kostyál Gallery.