Born in Salt Lake City, Utah; based in Providence, RI
Saturated with luminous color, Eli Kauffman’s oil paintings capture the theatrical and tender experiences of becoming an adult in the contemporary world. Kauffman bases such representations on teenagers in coming-of-age television dramas and films—ranging from My So-Called Life and High Fidelity to Moesha and Skins—that the artist consumed while growing up in Utah. These canvases ruminate on the discrepancy between melodramatic scenes in popular culture and the artist’s own relationships with friends and family.
Kauffman employs symmetry, mirroring, and other compositional strategies that European painters harnessed in medieval altarpieces and religious frescoes. For example, in Giotto’s Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ) (c. 1305), the backs of anonymous bodies create the illusion that the viewer could be one of those depicted in the scene. Kauffman associates this artful tactic with 21st-century social media content that positions the audience as active participants in the imagery. Kauffman also renders figures almost life-size so that they mimic the viewer’s own build and loom large on each canvas. This approach deifies the portrayed people as if they are in epic moments of transcendence. Yet the characters appear in ordinary intimate settings such as bedrooms, car interiors, kitchens, and public parks. Holding cell phones, birthday candles, steering wheels, vodka bottles, and other props, these individuals engage with one another like actors on a stage. The emotional intensity of each painting, however, does not seem performative. There is an authenticity to the feelings expressed here—evoking the psychologically challenging passage to adulthood in earnest.
Kauffman received a BFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The artist has had solo exhibitions at Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, UT (2022) and Artistellar Gallery, London, UK (2023). Three of the painter’s works were selected to be published in New American Paintings no. 162.
The majority of my paintings are monochrome, where the energy from saturated color brings a living room or a highway into a world of emotional urgency. Settings that naturally repeat in the work are the bedroom, the car and the public park. I watch a lot of teen dramas, where these locations are regularly the backdrop for paradigm-shifting events. The figures I paint age with me. Settings for my work are moving into domestic spaces that I had no interest in growing up, like the kitchen or living room. As new milestones emerge, I am interested in continuing to mythologize them.
I am obsessed with symmetrical and cyclical compositions as a way to signify that an action or figure is divine. Cyclical as in recurrent, flowing into itself. When I am planning a painting I am always looking for ways to bend arms and legs to mirror each other, or direct the viewer’s eye around the canvas in a loop. I often use everyday props such as a candle, a smart phone, or a tattoo gun to capture monumental moments. I think this is because any object can feel magical when playing a part in the right composition. It is really the relationship between figures that creates the sensational atmosphere I aim for in each painting.