An exhibition at Goldfinch Gallery, Chicago, showcases the painter's unfussy yet intimate studies of behaviour and mundanity
The night air around Soon-Yi Previn, as Mari Eastman has rendered it, is overbearing. Surrounded by short, effusive brushstrokes, Previn's impervious silhouette is further peppered by inky blue daubs. A chatty young Moses Farrow stands beside her, the red folds of his jacket matching an awning above (Soon-yi and Moses, 2021). The poolside portrait of a girl that opens 'Night Life', Eastman's second solo exhibition at Goldfinch in Chicago, is executed with similar aplomb. Untitled (Sanded Painting) (2021) is atmospherically grey-pink and lavender; the girl, bored but assured, sits with one leg propped up. Any rococo resonances, however, are challenged by her completely sanded face and body; the abrasions give the effect of splitting light.
Eastman is a compact painter, attentive to the arrangement of things but also to intuitive moments: lulls in conversation, the social anxiety of being watched. Her brush is usually wet and she contours quickly but, most importantly, she knows when to stop: leaving visible enough canvas or panel so that her figures are airy and glow easily. 'Night Life' is populated by 21 small and two large scenes drawn from magazine advertisements, home life and animals in situ. Untitled (Purple Dress) (2021), with its tipped-over jar and single white stiletto caked on the woman's foot, carries a palpable discomfort akin to the claustrophobic but beautifully hued interior scenes of Édouard Vuillard. Eastman's paintings of advertised glamour - two women in white jackets and gold jewellery against the New York skyline (New York City, 1980s, Dusk, 2021); three women in similar outfits strutting frieze-like (Women in White, 2020) - are like modern-day versions of the mundane in the works of the Nabis painters, which can be enriched if you have money.
Slyly energetic, Eastman's brushwork forgoes descriptiveness in favour of quintessence. In Untitled (Saluki) (2021), a few near-black passes convey the gloss of a dog's upper coat, while the whites and tans that dangle off the animal's lithe form, clear in stillness, hint at its ability to bolt.
Untitled (Kitty Cat Painter) (2021) takes the form of a conventional artist's portrait complete with palette, though appears to refute any sort of labelling. The painter's face has been cut out to reveal a cardboard underlayer with a charcoal profile, more rendered than usual. Just beyond the cut, there is the suggestion of a black cat's yellow eye with a daggered pupil. One paw holds a brush upright while the other is crooked under her chin, as if to say: 'Who, me?'; also proffered is an unexplained third limb leopard-printed with various flesh tones and sparkling with glitter. The character brings to mind Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992): vigorous, enchanting and an overpowering subversion of the 'cat lady' archetype, yet able to be discreetly authoritative when necessary. The women in 'Night Life' all brim with this understated duality.
Mari Eastman's 'Night Life' is on view at Goldfinch, Chicago, until 19 December.