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Art review: Mari Eastman at Cherry and Martin

April 21, 2011 |  4:00 pm

ME_TigerMother_LG

Mari Eastman has always been a likable painter, interpreting banal ornamental imagery and decorative motifs with a confident, breezy hand and a liberal sprinkling of glitter. Her paintings are pretty and a bit twee, and I never found them very interesting, until now. The works in her latest exhibition at Cherry and Martin are still casual, airy and assured, but they carry a sharper charge that feels almost violent.

Eastman takes things commonly seen as precious and renders them, well, not so precious. “Tiger Mother With Cub Under Cherry Blossoms (Joseon Dynasty)” is a sloppy rendition of a popular Korean motif. (It may also be a sidelong nod to Amy Chua’s book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which recently fanned the flames of Chinese-mother stereotypes.) Eastman’s loose brushwork is not only an unfaithful copybut suggests a kind of blurring or loosening of the image. No longer tightly rendered, the familiar picture is freed in a sense from its predictable appeal and conventional meaning, and becomes something new and undefined. However, the canvas is also adorned with small Swarovski crystals, a gesture that pulls it back into the orbit of trite beauty and value.

Elsewhere, the artist has violated the surface of the canvas itself. A painting of a vase of flowers looks straightforward until you realize it’s riddled with small punctures. But these tears actually make pictorial sense, functioning as negative space that helps to define the flowers in an otherwise misty image. Although Eastman literally pokes holes in decorative imagery, these violations simultaneously destroy and support the picture.

ME_BronzeOwls_LG By contrast, the cuts in “Tina on Her Birthday” are visual, rather than actual. Tina’s face is depicted as a potpourri of overlapping eyes, lips, noses and fingers. And though her feathery headdress and pleated clothing are painted in oil, her unruly features are crudely drawn in ballpoint pen. On a psychological level, the work captures the sensation of being pulled in multiple directions, or of inhabiting different identities. In terms of the sentimental conventions of portraiture, it denies the very thing portraits are designed to capture: a stable, personal “essence.”

Eastman performs a similar transformation on an icon of 1970s middle class decor: the owl. The basic shape of her bronze candleholders recalls the stylized, pointy-eared, round-eyed bird that graced many a kitchen or dining room. But, as in her paintings, the recognizable image has been blurred, streaked and smothered in a rain of mushy marks. The resulting object is almost scatological and decidedly uncute.

In a similar vein, Eastman has created a selection of animal-shaped jewelry. In place of the typical cats and birds, her creatures of choice include worms, ferrets and hammerhead sharks, all lovingly detailed and attractively shiny despite their associations with decay, disease and danger. By deploying the trappings of preciousness against expectations, Eastman turns the banal into something messy, unpredictable and interesting again.

--Sharon Mizota

Cherry & Martin, 2712 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 559-0100, through May 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.cherryandmartin.com

Photos: Top: Mari Eastman, "Tiger Mother With Cub Under Cherry Blossoms (Joseon Dynasty)," 2011. Bottom: Mari Eastman, "Owl," and "Owl," both 2011. Credit: Courtesy of Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles; photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

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