MARI EASTMAN Objects, Decorative and Functional
CHERRY AND MARTIN, LOS ANGELES, CA | APRIL 2 – MAY 7, 2011
Cherry and Martin is spelled out in compact, white neon letters centered in a long, narrow window set above eye level in a painted brick façade. Driving by the building on South La Cienega Boulevard in West Los Angeles, I think fleetingly that it might be a bar. “Is that the name of a drink? A cherry martini?” I’m still not sure what I’ll find there after parking and walking back along the row of low-rise contemporary galleries; I’ve just passed Culver City’s major television and movie production studios on my way from Venice Beach. If not a bar, the gallery’s name and the neighborhood’s stucco architecture recalls the comedy show from the ’70s, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Or is it Martin and Lewis I’m reminded of—drinking and showbiz combined?
Once inside the gallery, my disorientation lingers since Mari Eastman’s solo painting show, Objects, Decorative and Functional, appears to include pretend artworks as if for the set of a television program. The exhibition consists of mostly small, brushy, pastel-colored paintings along with a few hand-formed candelabras and pieces of jewelry. Initially it looks as though the artist lacks commitment to her various crafts. And if not a television stage, then perhaps she is going for a make believe decorative arts store. In the center of the first room of the gallery is a vitrine for Eastman’s silver jewelry, including such pieces as Owl on Branch and Squirrel Ring, which are for sale, just like the paintings; the artist’s candle-holders are displayed with the paintings in the second room. While channel surfing between these various alternate realities I take a closer look at the work, and in so doing, begin to fall under Eastman’s quirky spell. Operating within—but also questioning—a fine art sphere, she projects the allure of the entertainment industry’s fantasy world and then, with a smile and a wink, performs a psychological stunt: she “shushes” the controlling voices of authority of both worlds, drawing you in with coy paint strokes, spunky ball point pen doodles, and tiny cute silver animals.
Eastman paints loose, translucent, Rousseau-like scenes of charmed animals, her friends, a Greek god and goddess, a still-life, a landscape, and David Bowie in front of a mirror. Her subjects are personal, approachable, and evoke a dreamy mindset of bedtime fairy tales. She harnesses the power of fantasy in many realms simultaneously: literature, popular entertainment, and the fine and decorative arts. Employing a collection of unexpected decisions, she teases up an awareness of the picture plane: she cuts little shapes out of the canvas, highlights the surface with passages of glitter, draws directly on the canvas with blue pen, and—like a surprise kiss from someone you like, but just met—adds one small photograph to one small painting. These gestures become invitations to connect intimately with the work, while also helping to tumble down the pesky distancing wall between art and its audience. The title of the show gives this wall an extra shove; as a little joke, evoking serious-minded critical discourse. Nothing about the work in the show points to self-referential minimalist construction or the artist’s intention to emphasize the “painting as object.” Furthermore, the paintings are as decorative and functional as the jewelry and candelabras—they are Eastman’s conceptual fulcrum demonstrating that art can be pretty, popular, and smart.
After wandering into the third room of the gallery, I feel a curious buzz of fascination upon spotting a mysterious, flat file pedestal made of plywood. One side of the pedestal is open, showing narrow shelves holding both framed and unframed works on paper and several pages torn from the social pages of a magazine. Philip Martin, one of the gallery owners, explains that Eastman wants to show artwork in what is essentially the gallery’s storage and work room because, she observed, during openings, that is where everyone comes to socialize. Aesthetically, the wooden structure works with the well-paced installation in the two front galleries; Eastman’s clay and cast metal objects are cleanly presented on similar plywood pedestals. These small drawings, housed in their appealing tower, might or might not actually be looked at by gallery goers, but that’s okay with Eastman. Just knowing they are there, like favorite TV shows recorded on TiVo to watch later with friends, is what’s important. The attraction is the allure of gathering with friends, in the vicinity of the emotional hearth—in this case a box of artworks—especially after hours of fighting the city’s tides of traffic. Eastman makes her priorities clear in Objects, Decorative and Functional; what matters are small personal connections collectively shared. Plus, I really want that silver ring with a squirrel on it.
ContributorAnne Sherwood Pundyk
ANNE SHERWOOD PUNDYK is a painter and writer based in Manhattan.