«For his first solo exhibition in France, Eli de Haas (b. 1999, Rotterdam) chose a direct, straightforward, and almost intrusive address as a title. A statement that simultaneously engages its speaker — I — and the presence of another — You. Who is it? What is it?
I know you — I understand you. I recognize you. I notice you.
Starting with the title is primitive, even a little inappropriate. You can’t judge a book by its cover. It’s risky to want to understand the meaning in an instant; to grasp the whole before you’ve even scratched the surface. But the phrase here can be seen as the first image, the first meaningful key to the artist’s work. In French, no sentence can quite match the density of possible meanings of the original formula, which is loaded with effective ambiguity. The question, then, is not to understand who is I, who is you, nor the object to be captured in the knowledge of knowing, but to sense the tension at hand. The resulting chiasmus – I know you / you know me – can be understood as the recurring and necessary form of Eli de Haas’s work.
Many of the recent works presented in the exhibition reflect a new evolution in the artist’s practice, who now prefers painting on wood to canvas. The rigidity of the surface allows him to multiply the number of layers, to scratch, to rub, to create and dissolve apparitions on the surface of the image, while maintaining the finesse of the material and the vibrancy of the colours. In this way, he further distances himself from a linear compositional framework whose sequential construction could be read at first glance. The image lives by itself, the hand moves faster than the mind, and what germinates for a moment in the painting may become an imperceptible spectre in a landscape that finally reveals itself before our eyes. Technique, then, is not an exercise in style. It is a means of shaping the relationship between the hand and the work, allowing the reciprocal intentions of both to coexist on the same plane, equally valued.
Eli de Haas invites us to explore a world from within, via the complex, subterranean channels of affect that silently animate it. Testing our ability to conceive without understanding, to imagine without seeing or touching, he summons our childlike spirit to feel rather than to make sense. The stories we then tell ourselves in the presence of his images take on the form of fragmented dreams or fairy tales. Where verisimilitude is secondary, and gravity incidental, where bodies become mountains, where silhouettes are sketched in the shadows of trees, and where each face could be that of the person projected onto it. Without ever seeking to define a valid reality, using a sometimes naive free figuration, he tirelessly tries to give it a more lively, denser body ». Text: Noémie Pacaud/ Translation by Katia Porro
Born in Rotterdam in 1999, Eli de Haas studied at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts and at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, before moving back to Rotterdam. After a solo show in Rotterdam in 2021, and several group shows in Rotterdam, Berlin, London and Brussels, he is now presenting his first solo show in France: I know you.
Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
Every painting starts out very abstract. I sketch an initial image or gesture, directly onto the canvas or panel, and let the painting evolve organically from there. I never really prepare or plan out a painting before I begin. I think most of the imagery arises from a state of half consciousness. During the process of making a painting its often not clear what I’m dealing with yet, and I’m constantly chasing after that what seems most unclear to me. I think that this state of not- understanding is very fundamental for me. I try to use or play with obscurity and the not knowing of things, to explore more sensitive, seemingly intangible dimensions. It’s a lot about noticing and using the uncertainties that become significant along the way.
How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?
Life, death, love.
This latest show largely exists of recent works that are painted on wooden panels, combined with paintings on canvas. As for technique, using panels as the carrier is a new development for l me. The paint is built up very differently on this surface, compared to a canvas. In the process, a painting goes through many different forms and I often don’t go in one direction with it. The imagery transforms, merges and is often painted over as I go along. It’s a back-and-forth game, as one element of the painting arises, it can become clear another part needs to go again. In these most recent works, the use of panels allowed me to also sand away certain parts of the painting, or go back to a layer underneath. This layering of different compositions seems to have gotten a more significant place in the work now, and this new approach also lets me formulate things in a thinner, more airy way. This lets the figuration in the new work exist less firm and maybe more ambiguous in a way.
Could you share with us some insights on this ‘Untitled’, (2023) painting? Is there any particular story behind this new work?
This is one of the smaller works in the exhibition, a close-up view of an encounter between two figures. For every individual work, the exact story is very hard to put into words. It’s not so much about who these two characters are, I’ve never really been interested in portraying specific people. The story is more embedded in how they meet, in how they touch and the pause they carry between them. I try to somewhat expose and get into this underlaying dimension, by carefully shaping and amplifying it.
Based on recent paintings of yours, it seems that there is a fascination on more vague or amorphous body shapes on your canvases which characterise your visual compositions providing a well structured mystery to the viewer. Could you give us some more details about your figures that always feature your paintings some of whom they look to have a very distinguished presence on your canvases?
It’s true, there are always figures portrayed in the work. Most of the time there are two of them. I try to utilize the tension that this creates, to find a gateway into something less tangible. By emphasizing that area in-between one and the m other, or one and the self, the focus is moved to a more emotional atmosphere. When a painting reaches a state of firmness, when it begins to speak more clearly, subtle contradictions or challenges begin to appear. Sweetness and darkness. Love and hate. Complexities that are often hidden within the smallest gestures. A sideway look or a hand on a shoulder.
Could you tell us about your colour selection? It looks like you put a great emphasis on the combination of your very balanced and pale hues and tones.
The effect of colour has always been fundamental to me. Painting is a result of choices, in composition and in colour. While painting, it often becomes hard for me to keep these two separated, they become too intertwined. One can take the lead and the other one will follow, or the other way around. I never really limit myself to a specific colour palette. I like to think I pay close attention to colour in daily life, I do I guess, but then actually often I ignore all I took in and use colour in a way opposite to what I first thought would work.
Do specific artworks have been created by random experiments in your studio or do you usually come up with a particular concept or narrative in the very beginning of your artistic process?
My process consists for big part out of experimentation. It is always trial and error. I want to fine something I didn’t know or never saw before. Or maybe actually something that was always there, in some subterranean area, but haven’t yet been able to grab onto. There is no efficient way to reach that area, so I have to consider everything layer by layer. I know the origins of the work’s content is definitely not random, but it is often hard to trace back where exactly the insights came from. But memory probably plays a big role in it.
Can you mention any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?
Oh, there are so many good artists. I never know what to say on this question. Just now I was looking at the work of Gabriella Boyd and also some paintings by Norbert Schowtkowski. Yesterday I was digging through a book on Fra Angelica, I can look endlessly at his work. This summer I went to see the Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. I was blown away by it, I never saw death so real before, so close. It was really very powerful. Although I can get touched quickly by seeing something very good, I forget about most of it again when I start working in the studio. I’ve never had a big interest in tricks or usable motifs, as I really don’t like searching for something I can utilize for myself while looking at artist’s work.
Which are your plans for the near future?
I’m going to try to keep up what I’ve going right now. Maybe try and scale up to some larger formats again and mostly just maintain a steady workflow. I think that has always been the most important to me, the very consistent studio rhythm. What I know for sure is that there is no formula or master game plan for me. It can be hard to not get lost in the endless layering of things, but I have to work through it. In the end it’s simply about putting all tools to work, trying to keep eyes open for that what is happening and hope for a moment of clarity.
All images courtesy of Aurélien Mole © GALERIE CHLOE SALGADO