“This is my story,” says Myra Eastman in her studio overlooking a garden of flowering trees in a neighborhood where a small California beach town sifts out into quiet-seeming streets of old farmhouses. Her back is to the garden; she’s facing a formidable collection of artworks representing years of prodigious output in which the color and shape of her world is indeed often brilliantly-hued, but the content mostly horrifying.
Raised in an affluent Los Angeles suburb in circumstances that seemed protected from any hint of conflict or want, Eastman spent decades unraveling that comfortable bourgeois tapestry over an art life of vigorous enquiry, delving deep into issues she “can’t stop thinking about.” Such issues have driven the slender, gracious, bespectacled former schoolteacher to create with almost obsessive speed and relentlessness a museum’s worth of works so breathlessly immediate they can be cartoonish or chaotic, dripping with gesture, spilling over with ironically cheerful color that fails to overshadow the grist of human inhumanity that is consistently the content.
In works ignited by the successive wars in the Middle East, Eastman transubstantiated war photojournalism into her own stream of consciousness. Working quickly, as if unwilling to dwell on singular incidents, she created score after score of paintings mostly in black gouache on paper, reframing headline news, tightly composing the humans within the action. In such work as “Soldier and Woman” the image is dynamically bisected by a progression of steps that forms a barrier as well as a frame for the soldier’s torso as he reclines with machine gun above a woman with bowed head, below. In “Baghdad Funeral” a procession praying for peace forms a jagged horizon between coffin and mosque. “Woman Behind Wire” stares defiantly from behind a pattern of barbs which almost tear at the surface. The lines carry an urgency and intensity that a more belabored work would not.
The violent acts of human upon human moved from photojournalism into the artist’s life when her sister was gruesomely murdered in 2012 (?). Eastman moved from stultifying sadness into the studio when the trial of her sister’s accused murderer began. “And So the Trial Begins” became the first of 25 small paintings that imagined with cartoonish simplicity the horror of the murder and the events that led to it. The nightmarish invasion, fear, betrayal, brutality of the act are simplified in flat bright, graphic colors, perhaps better to convey or to understand the incomprehensible.
Like the war series, moments are frozen in terrifying tableau. On jewel-colored backdrops, figures often float in relation only to each other as if “real” life is suspended: there is no architecture that can hold a murder. “Ice Pick” crystallizes the horror like a retablo of a Christian martyr—the victim resigned, while “Wall Safe” lays the victim flat as a shadow: the simplified space leads the eyes to a figure escaping through a closing door.
Another opened as Eastman wondered on canvas about the roots of this murder, in which the victim’s daughter was involved. She turned to those posh hills of her childhood Los Angeles in the Mulholland Drive series. Using pop colors and graphic sensibilities of the Sixties, she teases out the possessiveness of possessions, the pose of privilege and its consequence of alienation while a city grid dominates the disconnected humans within.
“Everyday I am bombarded with an overload of human misery and unspeakable horror that pierce my heart with sadness. I can only make sense of it all if I tear off a tiny piece and create works of art that speak to our common humanity and dignity,” Eastman comments.