There is a quite new plasticity in Ken Eastman’s recent work. It still has a strong architectural presence, a sense of weight and mass that alludes to other structures around us, but there is something increasingly fluid in the pieces he has been making in the last few months. It is a response, in part, to the imaginative new substance and life of medieval gothic sculpture as it decorated the great churches of the Middle Ages. Not that there is any obvious or literal reference in Eastman’s art, more a gradual absorption and assimilation that is then authoritatively, and playfully, expressed. The work is generally quieter, more austere, giving a sense of consolidation and synthesis. The more articulated forms have largely made way to softer, less convoluted shapes. The pleats, joins junctures are still there, but are generally absorbed into a more muted, essentially simpler architecture.
Yet the movement is maintained. It is there in the twisting and curving folds and ripples, like the corrugations of a wind-fuelled curtain. The shapes seem less fixed, increasingly amorphous. Their quiet energy takes us back to the contrappostoof figures on cathedral façades – beginning to emerge as free independent entities – but also reminding one of structures in the modern world, broadside manipulations of metal, the sweeping steel curves of Richard Serra’s space-changing walls. Eastman’s organisation of space is complex too – but contained within the intricacy of forms that can occupy a modest plinth. In the past there has been an almost cubist interplay of interior and exterior planes, seemingly shifting, sliding and repositioning. These qualities to some extent remain, but the shapes are fuller now, swollen into a great uniformity or unity. Some of these big containers are almost cylindrical again, reduced to essentials. Or, as he has said “less built and less assembled than felt”, as if he is arriving at some core of creativity.
There remains though a strong sense of a fixed dynamic, a sort of suspended animation. For all their monumentality, the pieces have considerable elasticity, a tension that expands and contracts. The making of such expansive, delicately thin slabs of clay takes the material (it would seem) to a precarious state of support, as if these objects might easily buckle. This is precisely that the forms can appearto do, but by design rather than accident, a means of investing these pots with a kind of inner motion, an almost organic life of their own. This energy continues to reverberate in the changing light, the physical and spatial identity of these vessels are in a kind of flux.
This is why we have to circumnavigate this work to truly appreciate it. As Richard Serra once said “…if you reduce sculpture to the flat plane of the photograph, you’re passing on only a residue of your concerns. You’re denying the temporal experience of the work”. Curiously it is often how we view sculpture in the gallery too, as if it is a two-dimensional matter, to be seen as though through a camera lens. Walk round an Eastman pot, fix your eyes on the moving undulations of the walls and rims, the shifting shadows, the depth and texture of fired and re-fired colour. There is something about the range of Eastman’s quiet, often earthy hues that recalls the abstract purity of Piero della Francesca’s frescos – sun drenched Tuscany transposed to lush temperate Herefordshire.
Eastman is not so easy to classify. One tires of that lazy and over-used term “abstract vessel” when describing his work, because it is glib and reductive, just as it oversimplifies to call it “urban” (after all he lives and works in the remote Welsh borderland). Some labels are just superfluous. They miss the point. Clearly, Ken Eastman is a maker of sculpture that evolves and works on its own terms, but is also a more concentrated – for now – response to the shape of things, to the world seen and felt.
© David Whiting 2005