In a deserted downtown warehouse, sculptor Miles Eastman shapes an anguished face into his warm wax mold.
“It looks like a Hank,” I say.
“Uncle Hank,” he says. “Gotta make it family, right?”
Money permitting, Hank will be cast in bronze, joining Eastman’s series “Fabric of America,” a line of haunted visages rising from masklike plates embossed with the stars of Old Glory. “Fabric” is Eastman’s comment on the twisted face of U.S. patriotism that he witnessed after 9/11.
The Portland-born artist, who studied in Italy with master sculptor Marco Zeno, was in the hills of Tuscany when the planes hit. Back on U.S. soil two weeks later, he was appalled by what he saw.
“There were flags everywhere, on SUVs, on cars, buildings,” Eastman remembers. “It felt like a big blindfold, a big fucking Band-Aid. All you had to do was buy a flag made in fucking Pakistan and fly it on your SUV and you were a patriot. That flag has absolutely nothing to do with a flag that’s draped over a coffin.
“I had to find out what this symbol meant, and I felt the best way to do that was to take it apart.”
At first sight, the faces of “Fabric” recall the stone-encased bodies of Pompeii, dark imagery far removed from the optimistic Eastman, who trusts in the inevitability of rebirth — and reinvention — after catastrophe. A few feet away from the pot of molten wax where Hank was born hangs another flag-based piece of his. Assembly Required, a windshield-size bronze rectangle as thin as a kite, houses the stars and stripes within its frame, reordered symmetrically and connected like the prefab pieces of a model-airplane set.
“A pinnacle optimistic moment of my childhood was opening that framework of the model with all the pieces,” says Eastman, whose work is sold through Gallery L7 on Melrose. “I had all the hopes and dreams and aspirations of what I could do with that model.”
Assembly’s perfectly incorrect components are the artist’s real-world invitation: Engage, collaborate, remake. “The true essence of the democracy of the USA is, how are we going to participate in the world we have an interaction with? Our Constitution is a framework that begs for participation.”
Eastman’s back story contains its own dose of reinvention. He moved to L.A. from San Francisco in 1994 to act and do commercials. Auditioning daily — a process he loathed — he made enough money from endorsing Coors and other products to facilitate the financial reality of setting his work in bronze.
“I had an overarching feeling I needed to do something tangible,” says Eastman, whose creative urge is evident in the jewelry, pinecone replicas and other delicate works in metal that line the shelves of the warehouse’s second-floor space. “For one reason or another, my personality lends itself to being alone and making things. That’s not to say I ever considered it a viable way of life — it’s a sacrifice.”
Asked about that sacrifice, he drops his head in resignation: “Aaaaah ... it sucks. You have to learn how to optimize your peanuts.”
While auditioning on the commercial circuit, he bit into his fair share of hamburgers, an experience that might have inspired the McDonald’s meal he cast in bronze. Right down to the chewed straw and the folds in the carton, the dark-metal Burger, Fries and Large Diet sanctifies the throwaway, an ironic — and iconic — reversal of the cheapened symbolism of, say, mass-produced flags that’s far more startling and clever.
Eastman likes irony — no pun intended. Another work of his, an open palm pushing upward as if against the sky, yearns to be grasped but for the thorns that cover it.
We return to the subject of 9/11, and the age-old forces that conspire to divide us. “We have an innate nature that wants to be love, and it gets beaten down,” he says, as if about that thorny palm. “But it always comes through.
“We’re squandering our opportunity in not celebrating our similarity.”
What can an artist do about that, I ask?
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Without hesitating, Eastman replies: “Everything.”