On walking into John Eastman's exhibition at moxie DaDA, visitors have the distinct impression that they are being watched ... by the art. Faces meet visitors at the gallery entrance. And once inside the exhibition space, visitors quickly realize that faces surround them. The walls are lined with distorted countenances, with eyes enormous and mouths that either simper or reveal a dark grill-like grin.
Numbering 16, these faces are Pittsburgh-based Eastman's UMOs. UMO is an acronym for "You + Me + Others." The images are intended to represent humans and reflect their imperfection. According to Eastman, UMOs are "looking back at humans, quite critical of the human's behavior."
There is a distinct brilliance to this artistic strategy, as Eastman re-appropriates the viewer's traditionally voyeuristic gaze and turns this judgmental regard back onto the observer through each UMO's concentrated stare. Not only does this create in the viewer a subtle unease, it also accomplishes the artist's professed goal: As literal and figurative sight-lines bounce between viewer and picture plane, Eastman's attempted connection with the observer is achieved.
In other recent work by Eastman, recently shown at Shadyside's Gallerie Chiz, he demonstrated a penchant for bright primary colors and geometric forms. In those figurative drawings, facial features, especially eyes, are a small fraction of facial size. Either gazes are shielded by dark rectangular spectacles, or the eyes are closed entirely.
By contrast, the UMOs are devoid of color: Lines of dark ink alone give them their spirit and graphic force. More significantly, the focal point of each UMO is the eyes: They have the catatonic intensity of Sumerian statues, but look decidedly less anxious. Dark lids hood those eyes, signifying their critical disposition.
Notably, Eastman renders his UMOs in ink on vellum. The high-quality parchment is known as the paper of diplomas and wedding invitations. But in medieval times, when it was still laboriously produced from calfskin, vellum was reserved for manuscripts and Torah scrolls. It was also the material chosen for Gutenberg's first 180-copy edition of the Bible, in 1455. Eastman's choice of vellum over such familiar media as butcher paper and archival-grade drawing paper adds another valence of meaning: These images, in their critical reflection of ignominious human behavior, are rendered on the paper reserved for instruction and prophecy.
Exhibition curator Grant Bobitski has deftly solved the challenge of presenting paper-based art by hanging Eastman's vellum sheets from black binder clips fastened to the walls with screws. While they neither ripple nor roll, they are free-flowing and seem to hover just above the wall surface. On entering the gallery space, the UMOs are to be viewed by walking clockwise. However, the best effect is achieved by standing at the gallery's center, where one can take in all the reproving gazes simultaneously.
Eastman, who is self-taught, cites influences as diverse as abstract expressionist Willem De Kooning and Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. Although his artist's statement doesn't mention them, Eastman's draftsmanship also forcefully recalls Jean DuBuffet's 1940s primitivist phase and echoes Philip Guston, who in the 1960s abandoned abstract expressionism to return to a more figurative, cartoonish style.
The exhibition's only puzzling element is that, in his artist's statement, Eastman describes his UMOs as democratically sized. And in fact, on moxie DaDA's walls, the UMOs are all the same size -- that is, larger than life. Yet in Eastman's notation, the images supposedly range from small to triple-extra-large ("s-m-l-xl-xxl-xxxl"). And in terms of gender, they seem to be made in the image of their creator, with just one female evident.
Although his medium and approach may at first appear facile, Eastman forces the viewer to look beyond each drawing's simplistic rendering. These are not trivial caricatures of anonymous men and women. These are Eastman's portraits of humankind. Ultimately, the artist's seemingly unsophisticated technique contributes to his message. In their imperfect articulation, Eastman telegraphs our unwitting coarseness and blinkered limitation.UMO continues through Feb. 24. moxie DaDA, 1416 Arch St. (the Firehouse), North Side. 412-682-0348 or www.moxiedada.com