Stephen Eastaugh’s new exhibition, Undersea Signs, is broken into a number of subject areas. The work is inspired by a range of subjects, including the artist’s personal experiences and observations, and socio/geopolitical events. In its gentle, unassuming way, the work deals with the large, thorny questions about our shared humanity, in all its hope and glory; wonder and darkness; richness and tawdriness. And this is all mediated through the artist’s exceptional visual inventiveness, which positions him as one of the more remarkable Australian artists of his generation.
Eastaugh is an inveterate, constant roamer of the planet, having trekked across every continent over the past decades; sometimes just passing through, sometimes settling in for a time, before rolling on again, as the mood takes him. Often, his work is replete with references to his wanderings.
Several series within this exhibition have been made using pearl shells as a base, so that a poetic connection to the ocean is made. Inevitably, the dreamlike romance, history and mythology of the sea is evoked for the viewer, even before she or he begins to decipher the imagery etched upon the beautiful natural forms. The scraped and blackened lines may suggest ethnographic pictograms, or historic scrimshaw work, but we are entirely in Eastaugh’s universe, with its own order.
In the series, Nature Morte / Aqua Vita (Mini Bar), the artist references a constantly recurring object in all of our travels – the miniature mini-bar bottle. Eastaugh states that these works are his “toast to life, death and liquid in all flavours.”
Farnear (Sign, Vehicle, Heart, River), are four works which evoke the bittersweet situation of separation through distance. Referencing the subtitles, Eastaugh states: “Heading off in search of some place not even signposted, in a strange vehicle, following a river, with my heart pumping due to excitement, or longing, or both. Distances have shrunk in terms of travel time, and connectivity is much stronger than it was in the past, but this feeling of Far-near is never really far away.”
S.W.A.T.T. (Scholarly Weapon and Tactic Toys), comprises nine pieces depicting damaged soft toys in various stages of decrepitude. “Perhaps they have been torn apart from too much love,” Eastaugh suggests, “or perhaps they have had explosives hidden inside them.” Once more, the works are on pearl shells. The artist states that he has “inserted images and ideas” into the shells, “similar to a pearl technician who inserts an irritating pebble into a shell to eventually help create something positive.”
During Eastaugh’s time working on a Russian ice-breaker, as it ploughed its way to the North Pole, he became keenly aware of the international scramble for submarine land grabs under the Arctic Ocean. The artist believes that “international battles over the ownership of underwater zones will become more heated in the future.” In the series Undersea Signs, which explores these ideas, Eastaugh explains: “My signs are black and unsigned but, nevertheless, they are markers. Pointing us to where, I ask?”
Steve Cox, 2017.