You can often look at what is absent in a painting to find out what it’s about. You might not feel this absence because of a misdirection: when you're looking at what I want you to look at, you might not notice what is missing around it. Sometimes, when entire subjects are missing in a portrait, a person’s living environment becomes a stand-in for them. “For me, my biggest inspiration is the insight into the shaped living environment of others. Simple things like golden bracelets on your wrist, a handle to a water glass, a sentence about a certain topic or poetic thoughts put into words,” says Elisa Breyer, a painter based in the quiet town of Weimar. “I often catch myself looking for the portrait beyond the individual. A room can tell so much even when the subject is absent. A reading list, notes that someone wrote or what you choose from the menu in a restaurant. I am interested in the overall output of a person, not in a capitalistic way. More holistic, that also involves thinking and imagination. And the story that lies underneath.”
“I have a voyeuristic streak," she continues. "I am curious about everything that can create identity, for example, facial expressions and gestures. I see myself as a neutral observer who catches the aspects that seem banal." This voyeuristic habit comes to life with how she incorporates elements of photography into her practice. Much like how a photographer gazes at a scene from their viewfinder, Elisa finds kinship in how they view the world. “Visually I am influenced by the photographers with whom I studied with at the Bauhaus-University. How they see the world in a sensitive documentary way really shaped my style of painting,” she says. Elisa also mostly paints in upright formats, something she attributes to our smartphone viewing habits today.
But unlike photographs, Elise feels that paintings have the power to capture a moment that makes it feel more “eternal” than a photograph, which often ends up sitting in a hard disk somewhere. Perhaps this is a result of the slow process of oil painting, something that runs adjacent to how the world works today. “In my opinion, it is absurd and funny to paint figuratively and oil-based in the 21st century. It seems so stale. I challenge myself to become more patient and therefore the viewer as well. This is not an easy task in such a fast and result-oriented society,” she says. “Oil painting really reminds me of the make-up tutorials I watched in my teenage years. You put the light shadows where you want to highlight and then you just blend it out with a fluffy brush. The aesthetic I work with is like a daydream, it is the world I imagine in which I want to live in. Even though I paint figuratively, I don't paint what I see, but what I feel.”
Elisa talks about a series she made titled Platonic Romance, a project she embarked on when lockdowns started in her area in March 2020. Within, she turns her eye to her living space, one that becomes the centre of your world when social interactions become limited. The project consists of a series of large format portraits of people, depicting the loving yet alienating togetherness, as well as a series of small still life paintings from the domestic space. The two contrast the current state of being with the imaginary state to which everyone still clings onto. “I realised what I missed the most was not going to raves or traveling. It was the pleasure accompanied behind that, the social interaction. The glimpse of feeling connected. It is the everyday and yet fundamental things that have become important in this extraordinary time. Physical contact has become a luxury,” she says. “I chose to focus on representing interpersonal warmth and closeness, and the memory and certainty of these. I depict the private interior space, the daily zone in which we all have to stay, and which has transformed. The place of residence, previously only considered as a home, is now becoming an office, kindergarten, school or gym.”
“I talk a lot about things that appear superficial, but they are not. How you dress can tell a lot about yourself and your surroundings, and what words you use in your language as well,” she says. Ultimately, Elisa feels that her role as an artist is not only to depict the times in which we live in, but also to question and reflect on them. Dealing with questions in a sociological, philosophical, and intellectual context therefore becomes an essential part of the experience for her.
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About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.