Eli Kauffman’s art carries the rare and unmistakable feeling of uncovering something you knew you needed but didn’t know how to find it. Through their deeply emotive use of colour, Eli opens the door to a new world within each painting, all of which feel like a millisecond snapshot of these imagined characters’ lives that we are lucky enough to peek into.

Solo Exhibition 'Thinking of You' at Artistellar

Eli was born in Salt Lake City, Utah – “usually one of the states that people who are not from here haven’t heard about” – and lived there until they attended college, graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. Utah is one of the middle states of the US, placed in a unique position geographically – and socially too.

“It’s a crazy place to grow up culturally because half of the state is Mormon… and as somebody who didn’t grow up religious, and still do not consider myself religious, there is something about that which I find so fascinating”. In part this fascination was aided by the counter-culture communities which have created an interesting melting pot within Utah: “I grew up in the city, arguably the most progressive part of the state, so despite being in the Mormon bubble, I was also in the progressive bubble. Anytime there is a force as oppressive as Mormonism, there is going to be an opposing force that is just as strong.”

All of the above makes Salt Lake City home to a wide variety of artistic events that were the base for Eli’s formative years as a person and an artist.


Within this artistic community though, there were restrictions beyond the presence of a conservative/religious near majority – the principal medium being landscape painting left Eli in a precarious position for wanting to pursue more narrative/figurative painting in a smaller market that was more adverse to deviation from the status quo.


“That isn’t necessarily what sells in Utah, but I don’t want to conflate that with a lack of interest from general people” saying that, the reality of galleries’ pressure and of course, the need to sell work, places expectations on artists that reflects the traditional painting trends of the Southwest.

'Cary Shearing Alpaca' (2022)

Naturally, this is partly what led to the decision to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Rhode Island – “I was really sad to leave Utah, I really love my hometown. But if you go to all the neighboring states, there’s not many competitive art schools – So I knew I was going to be going far away from home.” The move to study art formally fostered Eli’s development as an artist; in a literal sense, but in a more personal way as well – “I think my degree helped me to develop a stronger sense of self and a stronger sense of what kind of story I’m trying to tell.” In a broader way, the scene at large is a huge proponent of this too – “It’s helped me realise that you can find community and support anywhere. I didn’t know a single person when I moved here but, just the same way I found in Salt Lake, there’s an incredible creative scene here – you just have to find it. It’s also helped me broaden my perspective on what the art world can look like.” With that too comes the position to be able to reach a broader audience, galleries nearby in San Francisco, New York, and far away in London – but more on that later.

'Cary Preparing to Shear Alpaca' (2022)

Eli’s process of creating art is an interesting mix of inspirations and reference material which work in tandem to create this ‘slice of life’ that the viewer is invited to look into. Using pictures of their friends, sitcoms/movies and themselves, Eli creates a unique composition which aims to retain the ‘realness’ of the moment, while also putting a spin on it to convey a message that a photograph or movie simply can’t.


From the original conception of the piece, whether that is a picture of a friend’s birthday or a scene in a coming-of-age movie, Eli looks for related imagery for further reference, and brings it all together in the sketchbook – “I think it’s so much more efficient because I don’t like working on computers, but it also leads to more unexpected changes because you can mess around with the perspective, proportions and the figures.”


Of course, it isn’t nearly as simple as that – as I am sure everyone has experienced many times before, you can take a picture of a beautiful moment – but it never turns out nearly as nice as it looked through your eyes. There is something indescribable often missing from a photo, which doesn’t do the subject justice – for Eli, this missing factor is a source of frustration but also inspiration – “By the time the moment has been translated to photography, then into drawing and then painting, it can come off very stiff. But the bonus side to it is that I can adjust things to make them look the way they should feel.” A prime example of this is ‘Twister’:

Stage 1: Big Bang Theory
Stage 2: Impromptu Solo Twister Game/Photoshoot
Stage 3: Sketchbook Study
Stage 4: Finished Artwork on Canvas

“I played a lot of twister growing up, the comical nature of it I feel works really well as an analogy for real life, like the complexity of navigating your relationship with another person and how that can be difficult but also hilarious at the same time.” The transformation from the laugh track of Big Bang Theory to the psychedelic and alien world of the final product is a testament to Eli’s ability to put their own unique spin on a piece to turn it from a choreographed sitcom scene into a piece that feels like a real moment.

As the piece evolves from the reference material, “the next step of sketching is really important to me to figure out what the actual composition will look like… it allows for me to make my own decisions about how space is going to function.” In pieces like ‘The Tower’, this results in an incredibly effective ‘story within a story’ style which betrays the audiences’ assumptions on the ‘rules’ of a subject, in these examples, time/order of events:

Pulling apart the anatomy of this piece, we are thrown into a mix of events all happening on a timeline. The tarot card, the representation of time through the sky, the oncoming headlights, and the burning images in the mirrors all play a part in this unfolding story that we watch from the backseat. Eli plays around with the order of events in a similar car piece, ‘I Dreamt I Could Help You”:

Alongside this idea of playing with time through composition, other works by Eli place the viewer in a variety of interesting positions:

'Where Am I? What Happened?' (2022)
'Looking Down At You' (2023)
'In The Sun' (2023)
'I Miss You' (2021)
'Hold Still (in Purple)' (2023)

As the viewer, scanning Eli’s artworks and their interesting inhabitants, you can find yourself stopping off in Al’s Bowling Alley, sitting for a tarot reading with Iris, or stepping into a birthday party – but only just for a moment. This alluring aspect of the pieces is aided too in the perspective shift of many of them, which again betray the audiences’ idea of a view’s natural tilt – we can see that above in ‘Twister’ where the grass rises to meet us, and in more recent pieces like ‘Just Playing’ and ‘Jungle Juice’. “That’s a step I’m subconsciously doing anytime I plan a painting, I’m figuring out how I want to warp space to better serve the story.”

Of course too, the stylised colouring that has become a trademark of Eli’s work is partly what makes it so unique and captivating. The manner in which this style manifests has changed drastically in their pieces over recent years – “I think colour has such a way with emotion, and regardless of the mood in the composition you can completely ruin or completely make that scene with colour. Recently I’ve been working with a lot of monochrome and analogous colour palettes where it’s like oh everything’s green or everything’s purple.”

'Who is Calling?' (2023)

“In my head, blue is a default. Even if it’s bright blue, it’s neutral to me. And I think part of that is because I do so many nocturne paintings and it just feels like nighttime is the colour blue. So it’s a good starting place that lets the shapes and images come to the foreground”

'Going on 23' (2022)
'Hold Still (in Blue)' (2023)
'Twister' (2023)
'Death' (2022)
'You'll Be Sorry' (2022)

“A colour like green is so charged, it can look really fresh and really vibrant, but it can also read as very sickly. It can be this very calm, sweet, natural scene. But then it can also be a great colour for something that’s more insidious. It’s the colour we sometimes think of as envy and jealousy. So green has that duality and that power to it.”

'Just Playing' (2023)

“Red is the same way. I feel like a lot of people think of red as the colour of rage and anger, but then it’s also so warm. So it can be very intimate as well. But yeah, also a very charged colour.”

'Getting Ready' (2022)

“The paintings aim not to idealize these scenes, but to mythologize them. Saturated color creates melodrama and tension, revealing emotional urgency in every action.” Though some of these are small and fleeting moments that seem familiar to us, there is an unfamiliar aspect to them created by this use of colour – we can recall a party but the emotions that are found there can’t be captured in a photograph. Through this somewhat psychedelic lens that some of the more recent paintings are captured under, you can see Eli’s own personal theories of colour shine through, adding a whole new layer to the composition.

This too often manifests itself, for example, in the wide variety of nocturnes that Eli has created, “I think about when people try and take photos at night, it’s just grainy and so bad. One thing I’m able to do with oil painting is really bring the light back into things.” Inspired too by artists like Peter Paul Rubens, Eli’s pieces make unique use of light and shadow to create an interesting dichotomy between figures – let’s take a look at some recent examples. Take the dreamy ‘Salt Lake City: A Love Story’ – with the figures on the porch draped in light, and those in the background fully consumed by a moody green and blue mix. “I think that piece was really formative for my practice” – we can see this in the progression of Eli’s use of colour and light to separate the characters for the more recent piece, “I Dreamt it was Your Birthday”.

'Salt Lake City: A Love Story' (2020)
'I Dreamt it was Your Birthday' (2022)

All these factors work in tandem to create an authenticity that lets us feel like we could step into each piece and join the world of these interesting figures. As touched on above, the subject matter contributes to this heavily, we are placed in these often intimate moments between friends and lovers in the car, the bedroom, the party, etc. “These spaces become opportunities for heightened intimacy, chaos and disaster. A first kiss or falling out with a best friend can become the most monumental event.” Interestingly, these moments are often in anticipation of, or after, the ‘big thing’ – a car after an accident, people preparing punch before a party, shuffling cards for a reading, etc. “Those elements in media, like a porch at a party, might be seen as window dressing but often these are the moments worth showing… these are the moments that feel more real to people.”



These slices of life feel so genuine to us because they are so genuine to Eli – more poignant than the reference material is the fact the subjects are often personal, like a lot of their friends getting their first tattoos, “These kind of moments are like a funnier form of intimacy to me. If I go with a friend to get a tattoo, I feel like I’m a part of such an intimate experience with a complete stranger.” Or even on a deeper level, “being in my 20’s, watching myself and my friends navigate and decide how to engage with spirituality outside of organised religion is interesting to see too.” These lived experiences express themselves in Eli’s work through series, like their recent collection of tattoo paintings, or through symbols and iconography, like tarot cards, angels/ cherubs, etc. Whilst some of the paintings seemingly have this welcoming factor to them, their personal relation to Eli and the people closest to them rejects the concept of universality to create something more authentic; “I have had people mention universality in relation to my work, but I don’t quite resonate with that… you can’t create something that will resonate with the lived experiences of every audience member.”



The threads within each piece that we can draw a connection to, even if the subject matter is completely foreign to our personal lives, is what makes the paintings so captivating. Seeing Eli and their friends’ passion is what invites us in – “like maybe it’s not necessarily a ‘relatable’ experience to a lot of people but it could be a moment where somebody is feeling accomplished, or maybe in a moment of rest enjoying a sense of calmness, which is something everyone has experienced.” The fact that Eli’s own lived experience will differ from a lot of the audience is what makes it so alluring – like the symbols that are so ubiquitous with American culture; a sprawling green lawn or the car trip – “growing up in America, everything happens in the car, your first kiss, your first broken bone, your first time smoking weed..”.

'Burning' (2020)
'Crashed/Closed' (2021)

Furthering this idea of lived experience are the stories within each piece – the settings lend to an ‘idea’ of the subject matter but often there is a completely different story being woven. There is a ‘slice-of-life’ feeling that Eli’s art often evokes, but that is not to say the stories in the paintings are always tranquil. We can look to the incredible – ‘Burning’, and a compositionally similar painting ‘Crashed/Close’ – to find this. Two pieces that pose more questions the more you ponder them, they are a deviation from what one might expect after a quick glance at Eli’s portfolio, but they are not a rarity. Placed often as a spectator in these worlds, we can imagine a comedy, a romance, a dark thriller, and many more unfolding right before us. Whether it is the lonely ambience of a locker room, a menacing look from a lover embracing their partner in bed, or a tattoo appointment, Eli’s range and the breadth of their subject matter tells unique story after unique story – and is the result of a process which has developed piece by piece since their first foray into the art world.

'Locker Room' (2022)
'Spoons' (2023)
'Hold Still' (2022)

Beyond the art itself, the pervasive restrictions that often befall professional artists still remain an everpresent pressure on Eli and their ability to truly express themselves. Whether this may be a deviation into another medium, a series of larger paintings, or a focus more on the drawing process, there exists a variety of roadblocks in the way of exploring all possible artistic avenues, which is often left unsaid. This partly became more evident during their formal study in Rhode Island – “I was very excited about a lot of things, ceramics, drawing, painting, some textile stuff… but I think the downside of a hyperspecialised degree is that I now have a hard time finding time in my life to work in other mediums.”


Moving into the art world in a commercial sense following their degree has also brought with it a different way of working within certain confines. Though less restrictive than the landscape-focused galleries in Utah, the nature of professional work carries the somewhat constraining expectation that you will stick to your medium and progress in a way that doesn’t alienate galleries or collectors. Whilst this is partly a result of the nature of capitalist society and the cycle of labour, “I can’t just spend a month wheel throwing and making functional pottery…”, it is also the reality for almost all artists, the collectors of oil paintings are not the same audience as collectors of works on paper, textile pieces, etc. “I used to think of drawing and painting as being so closely linked, but in the art market it’s not seen that way… so I’ve definitely noticed pressure to create works on canvas. I find a lot of the time that people enquire about my work, they don’t even want to see works on paper, they aren’t even considering it.”

The nature of these segmented markets in a literal sense for artists is that a foray into a new medium would essentially be starting from scratch, they would have to build completely new relationships with galleries and collectors. Of course, this has affected the creative process in that works produced in new mediums are more of a risk, but even the preparation of oil paintings through sketchwork has changed to meet these demands – “My sketchbook practice has really fallen off in the past two years because of it. I used to have like a really strong sketchbook practice drawing almost every day. And now it feels like I’ve also streamlined it and made things feel efficient to a fault where now I only draw to plan out a painting. And I think that that’s unfortunate because when I look at my older sketchbooks, that’s where some of my more interesting thought processes are happening.”

Study for 'I Dreamt I Could Help You'
Study for 'Jungle Juice'

“When you monetise the thing you love, that pressure will always be there… I think I get embarrassed to try something new even though it’s like nobody has to see it unless you decide you like it, I get self-conscious about trying something new with the composition.” Alongside this, comes restraints in a literal sense, like not having enough studio space to experiment with much larger canvases, or the art market currently favouring much smaller pieces (as well as a general downswing in the market in general recently).

'Reservoir Park' (2021)

Despite these constraints, Eli has progressed massively as an artist in just a few short years – both creatively and professionally. They have been a part of many group shows all over – from California to St. Tropez. This has culminated in a major milestone this year when Eli had their solo show in London, for the Artistellar Gallery. For someone who has only recently entered into the art world professionally, their presence in shows around the world is a testament to the authenticity and originality of Eli’s art – which will surely continue to spread as audiences come across their work. Personally too, Eli hopes to use these constraints – for example, that of size, to broaden their creative endeavours – continuing experiments from the pandemic during self-isolation where they produced works on the back of mac and cheese boxes, or even the community-created ‘Quarantine Quilt’ that took any submissions and was given away to a random participant.

Solo Exhibition 'Love is the Message' at Finch Lane

It has been a real pleasure to make this connection with Eli and to shine a light on their journey and creative process. Please support them at: https://elikauffman.squarespace.com/