The atmosphere that British artist Belinda Eaton creates in her art is both familiar and alien. Characters who in their features, colour, attires and postures do not belong to this part of globe are painted in her forthcoming solo exhibition (October 9-18, 2018, Canvas Gallery, Karachi). They figured in her previous work too that started appearing in Pakistan almost two decades ago. She first showed in Karachi in 1997 with solo exhibitions held at Ziggurat II, and at The A.N. Gallery (a display space managed by David Alesworth in the premises of Coconut Grove, then a trendy restaurant in town). Eaton’s paintings impressed the local art circle, and the buyers bee-lined for an Eaton canvas to put up on their walls.
Her paintings involve a world that is distant yet desirable; cold but curious. Humans are situated in settings that are peculiar due to the background details: table cloth, edible stuff, bottles, glasses, and cutlery. In its sensibility, it represents a separate society (western) but not necessarily a different culture because one can recognises many aspects of it in the local surroundings. Thus, Eaton was not treated as a stranger not her work considered odd, since both provide an occasion to view ourselves, our inspirations and aspirations.
For many, her work reminds of parallel and diverse realisms. The way she paints figures — precise, calculated and confident — is not her individual diction. A number of English painters render their subject in a similar manner (she did her Foundation course in 1979 and BA Fine Art from St. Martin School London). This style is largely identified with British art training. But seen here, it is considered a classical mode of image-making, mostly connected with past. However, Eaton’s work deals with a present that can be felt in things and costumes she prefers to draw.
The works she has repeatedly exhibited in Pakistan (before moving to Spain) in essence are ‘portraits’, but not merely natural resemblances. In an uncanny way her work suggests a layer beyond and behind appearances: “They are how I perceive things with all their energy expressed through colour, paint and the power of the brush stroke”; all managed by careful composition of elements as well as expressions — rather expressionless-ness of her models.
In a sense, the paintings invoke an air of tranquillity and repose. People posing in these places are in no hurry to move away; they are settled, satiated and satisfied. To convey that sense, the artist opts for a formal device — of connecting figures with their fields. To enhance the aspect of unusual, she introduces a few objects: lobsters, fishes, plants, all executed in strong colours, thus suggesting their independent presence, importance and meanings, primarily for her.
These items have a symbolic value but it is not a definite reading. A great attraction of Eaton’s work lies in its openness because on the surface her paintings seems like ‘portraits’ (the artist has participated in ‘Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ Exhibition’, 2003 & 2006 at Mall Galleries; and ‘Star Portrait Exhibition’, 2005 at County Hall Gallery, London); but essentially are accumulation of ideas about an age, group, taste and state of being as well as alienation.
In her recent work, one feels that the distance between layer of garments, skin, and background is merging, melting and meeting, even though all these constitute different and distinct motifs. In this group of paintings made between 2015 and 2018, one finds patterns which in a way turn the picture plane into a flat surface.
It reminds of traditional practices that preferred ideas/art of abstraction than pursuing illusionism, for instance Celtic manuscripts, Maori patterns, Art Nouveau and William Morris’ designs. This blend is visible in Belinda Eaton’s new paintings, especially in ‘Parasol and Sunglasses’, 2017. In this oil on canvas, tattoos on the thigh and lower part of body are juxtaposed with deigns on model’s shirt, all against motifs on parasol and patterns on her seat cover. The face, arms, one leg and a bit of midriff are daubed in skin tint, but overpowered by multiple motifs. Contrary to other artists, the element of pattern in the art of Eaton is hardly about order. Instead it suggests a desire to be lost in a web of worldly confusions — in order to combat (but not come out of) one’s solitary state.
That state sometimes seems ironic and funny too, like the painting ‘Man with Orange Ashtray’, 2018, of a masculine man with arms covered in thick mass of tattoos and sitting solemnly on a stool in front of a tiled wall. Tiny cartoon character on his black T-shirt diffuses the seriousness of the environment; offering diverse sides of a personality, often hidden but not difficult to reveal. This shift in the mode is more visible in her works on paper.
But, in her oils on canvas, Eaton chooses a language that is dense in terms of its content. The intermingling of figurative elements and patterns leads to the condition of a person — a human situation that is normally experienced in great literature (J.M. Coetzee, Paul Auster, Patrick Modiano, Quratul Ain Hyder) where individuals are caught in unforeseen scenarios and can’t get out of it. Eventually these become their fate. These are narratives in which man is eventually ‘settled’ to his destiny.
Apart from the painter’s remarkable skill that still astonishes a spectator in Karachi, the work of Belinda Eaton may be viewed in a different light after the advent of selfie. Her earlier canvases, in a way, echo aesthetics of conventionally composed photographs. But, like multiple modes of representation, there exists different types of photographs when it comes to a subject like human body. Earlier, the pictures were organised with models arranged in a pose or group to communicate an idea or to convince the superiority of composition. For this purpose, people sat and an artist captured them (often photographing them first), in order to showcase their inner personalities. With selfies, this routine has changed. Now you don’t need an ‘outsider’ to depict you. With your smart phone in hand and selfie stick ready, you portray yourself — mostly cheerful, casual and exhilarating.
Today we see more ‘selfie-portraits’ (all happy) in comparison to the orchestrated photos with everyone posing as sombre and serious. But Belinda Eaton’s paintings take us back to that recess of ourselves, where we are not always smiling with holding our selfie stick but are in a dark mood, exasperating, anguished, uncertain.
Her paintings bring forth a world of men and women (and with some other creatures, such as ‘Man with Hoppe Bird’, 2017) that focuses on presence, postures and gestures, to communicate deeper concepts. According to John Bulwer, gestures are “the only speech that is natural to Man”. Thus, her work is a semblance of language — of loneliness, doubts, desires and confusions around and within us.