by Paul Edmunds (August, 2008)
When discussing Peter Eastman, mention is always made of the fact that he
dropped out of art school after a year, foregoing formal education for a
practical one, feeling that he wanted to get going with his painting
career. He then spent some time restoring antiquities in London.
From one angle, in current South Africa, the lack of a formal education is
hardly unusual, but from another, it provides an interesting insight into
Eastman's work. He produces paintings on flat surfaces, which are for the
most part hung on walls. However it is his slightly unconventional
approach and aesthetic which set him apart from many others doing the
For one thing, his choice of subject matter is sometimes a little arcane.
For another, many of his paintings, most notably his earlier works, are very
difficult to see. All of this serves to articulate Eastman's concerns
around the viewer's relationship to his work, and to painting in general.
Nowhere was this more evident than in his often monochromatic paintings
produced from 2004 when he first came to prominence. Time and again,
Eastman has referred to his interest in how the work reflects on a viewer.
Sometimes this has been explored quite literally, where someone standing
in front of one of his large monochromatic works is faced with the
nacreous interference of their reflection with the artist's creation.
Viewer and subject matter become almost indistinguishable, and, in this
way, Eastman contends, the painting acts as a foil for a viewer's
More recently he has begun exploring this notion in a less literal way,
taking the term 'reflection' to mean more than a physical process,
involving light, a shiny surface and a viewer. In his most recent work he
has begun introducing more overt imagery and a greater degree of
illusionism, suggesting that a viewer's interpretation of the images
presented to them serves to reflect on them in a more metaphorical way.
Alongside his paintings Eastman has always produced digital prints which
he creates by working over photographs in digital media, subtly altering
forms, tones and colour. This he says, has always allowed him to explore
colour even while he was methodically removing it from his paintings.
'These monotone enamel paintings reflect on our position as a viewer. They
make us aware of ourselves in relation to a painting and, more broadly, of
our persona and position in the world at large.', catalogue statement,
Reflective, Michael Stevenson Gallery 2004
'At the moment I am trying to make paintings that work only as painting.
That is to say that there would be no other medium more appropriate for
the image. If the painting can be accurately photographed, or if it is not
essential to the image that it is in paint, then there is no need for it
to be a painting. The only way to see these paintings is by standing in
front of them.', interview, Art South Africa, vol. 04, issue 02
'This idea of projection relates to previous work of mine where the
reflective surface of the painting includes oneself and one's environment,
forcing the viewer to include themselves in interpreting the work. This
idea in turn developed from the way in which people would see things in
paintings of mine in a way which for me was nothing like what I had in
mind, but which seemed like reasonable interpretations'.
'The artist refuses to impose any narrative or representational meaning to
his imagery... Even when using the same image over and over again, the
pictures are never about the same thing... The reflections become part of
the image and alter in different situations and with varying light. The
colours of the painting are never final.' Michael Stevenson and Annabel
Rosholt, Moving in Time and Space Michael Stevenson Contemporary
'The blacks reflect like polished agate, and project viewer and gallery
into the painting, thus blurring the boundaries between real and fictive
worlds.' Lloyd Pollak, Art South Africa vol.03, issue 01 2004
Eastman has begun producing acrylic on canvas works, preferring this, for
the moment, to the less sympathetic enamel on aluminium. He prefers, he
adds, the relatively innocuous acrylics to all the solvents used in
preparing aluminium and working with enamel. The process has also become a
lot quicker. Although Eastman feels that his current work is a natural
progression and slight development from his last body of work, a viewer
might think differently. Images taken from photographs are used, but the
originals soon lose importance as paint and surface become paramount.
Naturalism gives way to something you really don't want to call
expressionism, but which has some of its gestures and evocative use of
colours. What this topmost paint does, however, is draw a viewer's
attention back to the surface and away from illusionism, re-establishing
both the viewer and the painting's presence in the here and now.
In the 2007 series of 'Shadow Paintings', simple shadow silhouettes of
figures cast on monochromatic backgrounds were rendered in Eastman's
characteristic shimmering enamels. Revealing a mastery of tone, the
figures and their grounds assumed equal importance, and a viewer's
reflection cast onto the works, also originating below the format, entered
into a competition for starring role on this stage.
Later that year, Eastman presented 'Supernature' at hip Cape Town gallery
whatiftheworld. Comprising a suite of enamel and acrylic on aluminium
paintings, the show found Eastman working in a more naturalistic mode to
produce a series of large scale images of owls. Along with works measuring
two metres in height was a cluster of smaller images. Eastman's sensual
engagement with paint was most evident in these rich, startling paintings.
Each work was given a title which referred to a belief about owls or the
sighting thereof, ranging from Blindness and desolation and Bad
Luck to Change of weather.
This body of work looks on the surface to be a departure for the artist,
but, he asserts, his concerns remain similar: 'One sees the serious faces
of owls staring out, when in reality they are not serious, accusing or
surprised, but probably thinking about where to get the next mouse to eat
or whatever owls think about. It is this human projection onto the owls
that I like... they are just a way of looking at this concept... more
about the way our projections reveal more about ourselves than what we are
Where this idea was previously immersed in the physical structure of the
painting - its hovering, reflecting, unyielding surface - Eastman now
explores this relationship with the images and what responses they evoke.
His naturalistic, and highly skilful renderings also allow him to explore
more fully the sensuousness of paint and colour.
From 2004 - 2007, Eastman produced several related series of paintings
including the 'Shadow Paintings'. In 2004 he presented a show at Michael
Stevenson entitled 'Reflective'. Here in a series of cityscapes, Eastman
had combined a simple but accurate depiction of the subject matter in
simple colours with the shallow relief created by layers of enamel.
Describing this he suggested, 'I paint in a studio in the city of Cape
Town where I feel a part of, but apart from, the masses of people, and in
the paintings I play with my ambivalence toward anonymity in a familiar
landscape.' Perhaps the objective observation and rendering of his
surroundings combined with the blurry outlines of the shallow relief, all
disturbed by a viewer's reflection, captures that ambivalence.
He explored this technique in other works such as Shark (2004) and
2005's Black Portraits series. It was here that this characteristic
enamel painting technique really came into its own. Monochromatic surfaces
held shallow relief depictions, built up by layers and layers of oil and
enamel paint, and later polyester resin. These images were nearly
invisible until the right light threw them into relief. All the while the
viewer's reflection intruded on this, painting the paint, as it were, with
reflected tone and colour. This technique was probably most successfully
used in 2005's monumental Horse.
The Black Portraits comprised a series of large scale black
portraits of England's most famous wrongly convicted men, the so-called
Birmingham Six. The works were constructed solely in very shallow relief,
with agitated but carefully controlled brushwork providing a complex
broken surface for poured black enamel. The images appear, morph and
dissolve as a viewer moves past, implicating one in the construction and
maintenance of the portrait. Eastman explores the visual paradox of a
black painting being only visible by the white light it reflects. The work
probably, consciously or otherwise, makes reference to Marcus Harvey's
controversial portrait Myra which Eastman saw while he was working
Eastman does not have a show planned in the immediate future, but is
clearly very productive at the moment, uncertain but excited about where
his new body of work will take him.
Born 1976. Lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa.
2007 'Supernature', whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town
2007 'Shadow Paintings 2004 - 2007', Obert Contemporary, Johannesburg
2004 'Reflective', Michael Stevenson Contemporary, Cape Town
2008 Joburg Art Fair, Johannesburg
2008 'Realisme' Art Fair, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2007 Three-person show, Cork Street Gallery, London, UK
2006 'Twogether', 34Long, Cape Town
2005 'South-East', 34Long, Cape Town
2005 'Mashups', collaboration with Matthew Hindley, 34Long, Cape Town
2005 Obert Contemporary, Johannesburg
2005 Sasol New Signatures exhibition, Pretoria art Museum, Pretoria
2004 'South African Art 1800 - Now', Michael Stevenson Contemporary,
2004 Art Salon, Rose Korber Gallery, Cape Town
2003 Absa l'Atelier finalists' exhibition, Johannesburg