‘Ephemeral media flotsam’

Artist examines the dominance of digital technology

Oakland artist Jessica Eastburn.

Oakland artist Jessica Eastburn.

Photo by Robert Speer

Flimflam, paintings by Jessica Eastburn, through Aug. 27.
1078 Gallery 820 Broadway, www.1078gallery.org

One of the definitions my dictionary gives for the title of this exhibit, “Flimflam,” is “a piece of nonsense.”

It’s an appropriate title because artist Jessica Eastburn’s paintings have no meaning, no narrative. They tell no stories and make little or no sense.

Mind you, there’s a lot to look at. The paintings are chockablock with figurative images piled atop one another, all of them rendered with exacting technical skill. At first glance, they look like sophisticated computer-generated doodles, and it’s hard to believe Eastburn actually painted them.

But she did—every line, every coloration, every image. It was amusing to watch attendees at her opening reception at Chico’s 1078 Gallery last Thursday (Aug. 4) as it dawned on them that these were actually meticulously drawn and colored paintings. “Wow!” and “Amazing!” were typical responses.

Eastburn, who was present at the opening and gave a short talk about her work, is in her 30s and lives and works in Oakland. In an interview, she said she began her career doing large abstract pieces that were about “composition, color and shape, and that was about it.” Eventually, she downsized and began using figurative images that she culled from various media, especially the Internet.

As she explains in her artist’s statement, her works contain “swatches and snippets of patterns and motifs, and layers of pop culture iconography, that all overlap and overshadow one another to create a pastiche of ephemeral media flotsam.”

Cartoon and comic-book images proliferate, as do scenes from old movies and TV shows, old newspaper photos, postcards—you name it. There’s no order to the images, no sense that they are connected in a theme. Eastburn starts each piece with one image, adds another, then another, according to whatever strikes her fancy.

She makes no plans, draws no thumbnails. “The more it doesn’t fit together, the better,” she said. “The imagery is secondary to the composition.”

Eastburn lived for a while in Silicon Valley, and to the extent that her paintings are about anything, they are about the dominance of digital technology in our lives and the often overwhelming amount of media we must deal with.

The advent of digital technology “has inundated people with information, most of it unimportant, trivial or outright useless,” she writes in her statement. Her work, she continues, “mimics this digital overload by illustrating liminal, arbitrary, and incongruous information.”

Although she uses a computer to collect images from the Internet, her works are “the antithesis of ‘drag and drop’ digital technology,” she writes. She uses “antiquated technology” to sketch out her works, then finishes them using an opaque watercolor called gouache, cel vinyl for inking cartoons and an airbrush and spray paint for coloring.

There’s a curious tension in these pieces, between their technical exactitude and their jumbled contents, that forces the viewer to think about the role of narrative in art. If these were completely abstract works, such questions wouldn’t arise, but Eastburn’s use of figures confuses the issue in a way that is both provocative and unsettling.

This exhibit may be “a piece of nonsense,” but it’s also one of the most interesting and challenging shows I’ve seen in a long time. I highly recommend it.