Splitting her time since childhood between Israel and New York City, Sharona Eliassaf is deeply affected by the changeable notion of place: Her canvases are stage-like spaces where she manipulates her own sublime, weaving cryptic narratives from the collected experiences of overlapping countries, languages, identities, markets, anxieties, and technologies experienced in the everyday. Like in a dream, nothing is excluded as subject matter: TV game shows, storefront signs, breaking news, overheard conversations, cosmic phenomena, and digital images all swirl and synthesize in a single composition
Sharona Eliassaf (B. 1980) is an American and Israeli painter who lives and works both in New York and Telaviv. She received her BFA from the Bezalel Academy of art and design, Jerusalem in 2004 , her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York in 2011 and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine in 2011.
Recently she has exhibited her work in a solo exhibition at Hezi Cohen Gallery in Telaviv and has been included in numerous group exhibitions and publications . Her work had been shown in the Queens Museum of Art, New York, Braverman Gallery, E.tay Gallery, Trestle Projects, September Gallery, Transmitter Gallery and Beverly’s among others. In 2018 Eliassaf will be participating in an exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas which will bring together Georgia O’Keeffe’s works, alongside works by a selected group of contemporary artists that expand on O’Keeffe’s artistic legacy.
In 2012 Eliassaf cofounded “The Willows”, an artist run exhibition series in Brooklyn heights with artist Emily Weiner.
Interview with Sharona Eliassaf
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Sharona, can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist? How has your work evolved over time up to this moment?
I was born in Israel and raised in New York from a very young age. Growing up in New York I was introduced to art, music and theater and my parents and I would regularly go to museum exhibitions especially to the Met which was always a treat for me. Over there my favorite wings were the European impressionists and the Egyptian wing.
I always loved music and loved going to the theater but painting was always a strong passion and for some reason which I can’t really point on to I felt that it was the only thing I wanted to do from a very young age and the most natural form of which I could express myself. So my parents helped me set a studio in the basement in our house in Queens and that is where and when I started painting every day since the age of 9.
At the age of 14 my Mother decided to leave back with my sisters and I to Telaviv and since my father kept living in New York I had the privilege to travel back and forth and explore both distinct worlds which had a big influence on my life and work to this day.
During high school in Tel Aviv I took classes at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and after that time I studied my BFA at the Bezalel academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem which was an interdisciplinary program in the Fine arts. When I ended my studies there I moved back to permanently live in New York where I lived for the next 12 years and began my studio practice in Manhattan and then in Brooklyn and went to Grad School at the School of Visual arts and to Skowhegan.
Can you walk us through your creative process and planning stages for the paintings? Do you plan the compositions beforehand?
I often approach a painting as if it were a performance in a dysfunctional theatrical play. As if producing for a film set, I always think of how to build up moments in a painting by choreographing values of light and dark, by creating tensions, and by reconfiguring what looks familiar to appear new or strange.
In these stage-like spaces I feel I can manipulate my own sublime, weaving cryptic narratives from the collected experiences of overlapping countries, languages, identities, markets, anxieties, and technologies experienced in our everyday life. Like in a dream, nothing is excluded as subject matter: TV game shows, storefront signs, breaking news, overheard conversations, cosmic phenomena, and digital images all swirl and synthesize in a single composition.
I often walk around with a camera everywhere I go and capture moments, light, patterns , landscapes and scenes that may not seem important to the ordinary but images which I feel I can incorporate in my paintings to help me build these compositions.
I normally begin a painting with a blurry vision and briefly sketch it for myself in a note book but when I approach the painting and begin it, normally things develop and change during the different stages of the painting and the painting brings me to a new place which I didn’t have in mind before or did not expect. Although I may have somewhat of an idea my process is very intuitive and I especially like those moments in the painting when I rediscover something and that usually brings me to think of the next painting.
Are there are any recurring themes or specific references that you keep coming back to in your work? What is at the forefront of your mind at the moment?
In the past I used to clip images from the media and strip them of their stories, allowing me to draw from disparate sources and destabilize absolute meaning in my paintings.
These days my source material comes mostly from personal experiences, as well as ideas and images from newspapers, television, and overheard conversations. I was always drawn to dual and alternate realities—such as mysterious relationships that form in nature, or the deepest fears that dwell behind everyday life. I think this has a lot to do with my own personal experience. Between living in two places and being part of separate histories and experiencing dual identities in my everyday life.
A few years ago I took a day off from my day job and stayed home and watched lots of television during the day. I was watching game shows and I realized that in a lot of them they incorporate in their stage sets a picture of a landscape that does not necessarily relate to the reality of the audience sitting in the set. It felt like this is the landscape that everybody wants to be a part of but unfortunately they cannot be there. Like in the Wheel of Fortune for instance. This brought me to the idea of composing a landscape in a brand new composition or set.
All of my recent paintings are about two worlds becoming one and turning into a third world. Like in the Wheel of Fortune, some of them may have text and some may not but all of them have a similar relationship to the game show and stage set.
Do you use references of any kind, whether for pattern, imagery, color, etc.? On that note, color seems like a hugely important element in your work. Seeing the work in photos it’s hard to tell—do you incorporate fluorescent paint? Is the documentation of such vivid work a challenge?
Some of the patterns I use come from pictures I take of decors on buildings in New York and Brooklyn especially from the art nouveau and art deco periods, compositions from Vintage traveling posters, street signs especially from the time of my childhood in the 80’s and old pictures I collect from the internet of stage sets.
As a colorist, I am always asked about my color palette and when I begin a painting I always ask myself the same questions regarding my colors and sometimes it’s hard for me to explain. I paint very intuitively and I see color as a language. Sometimes I begin a painting without choosing specific colors for the specific painting. When I paint, I spread all my paint tubes in front of the canvas on a large table and most of the time mix the colors on the canvas itself without the use of a palette. Which probably effects the color decisions I make. Sometime I like to purposely choose colors that may not feel like they may work together just to see the result.
I paint with oils mostly and avoid using florescent colors, Some parts of the paintings are usually painted in acrylics, airbrush or with spray paints, which in one painting when those colors are painted beside the oils they sometime “clash” with the oils and may bring a florescent feel to them and have the settled colors of the oils stand out. Which I find to be exciting in the process of the painting.
In the past I was more concerned with the image when approaching a painting but these days the surface of the painting and the colors are as important to me if not more. I feel like the surface is what challenges me as a painter these days.
Your work often incorporates a stage-like appearance, with a central space flanked by curtains or walls. What about the flat surface of painting relates to this type of composition? Is there a specific reference for this structure?
I suppose this brings me back to my observation of the stage set. I sometimes use this composition of the stage as an excuse to make sense when putting together different aspects that may not seem to relate together into one painting surface. Structures have certain rules and I like to play around with that in my work. Sort of like building my own puzzle together, building new rules I guess and restructure the set in my work.
Maybe that is why I love painting so much. I could pretty much create any environment I wish from nothing.
The flat compositions are probably so because when I paint the painting I paint it like a puzzle. Some parts go first and then the rest and only in the end they come out as a whole. I don’t normally paint the whole painting in Layers, I separate the layers and with the glazing in the end try to bring the layers together.
In a previous interview from 2012, you wrote of a painting: “It’s a puzzle about how incompatible things—here, disaster and love—can manage themselves together.” Do you feel like this sentence still describes the feeling you hope to evoke in your work?
At the time I mentioned that sentence regarding a painting I made in 2012 called “Courtship during an earthquake”, a painting of two people making out during an earthquake in their living room.
However, I feel like this is still my motto.
During our whole lives we all question how to survive this crazy world and we spend so much energy and thought in trying to comprehend and make sense of it all. However, when I begin a painting and dive into it I can experience and deal with our reality in a more personal way. As cliché as it may sound, When painting its like being in love, All these expectations begin and emotions, Nothing else really seems to matter and disaster and love can manage themselves together.
I always feel when I paint that we as painters create “problems” in order to solve them and deal with the duality of order and disorder.
Your work oscillates from vaguely abstract to fairly representational—how do you navigate between the two and did your work ever swing fully in one direction or the other?
I am continually trying to define a line between abstraction and figuration. When I began painting I started off as a figure painter and then a landscape painter. Some paintings seemed more abstract than others but they weren’t, it was just that the components and artificial light in that landscape gave that feel to the piece.
The thin borderline and relationship between abstraction and representational is what I am interested in when looking at a painting and especially challenges me when painting my own painting.
My life friend, painter, writer and co-curator of the Willows Emily Weiner once wrote about this in the most accurate way:
“Throughout these works, laws of physics are suspended, as paintings depict upside-down worlds, hyperreal light, and dual-natured objects slipping in and out of abstraction. However, through the cracks of Eliassaf's broken logic and fragmented phrasing, hidden meanings seem to arise. Their tales are as obscure as the virtual realities Eliassaf creates--but speak just as clearly to the real world: Another stage where the props are moving pieces, futures are uncertain, messages are mixed, and encounters are chance. “
You frequently incorporate text into your paintings—what does the text represent for you? Where does it come from?
Text always had a significance in my process. In the past they were hidden in paintings. Sometimes giving double meaning to a scene in a painting or a hint of something to come.
In recent years though, I feel like I use text as a word game in many paintings. Some have the physical text and others have some mystical hints for example only the pattern in which the text should be painted. But like in a word game the text is there to challenge the viewer or have a conversation between myself and the viewer or myself and an imaginative friend. At times it feels to me that painting is like writing a diary. So many hidden and personal thoughts, expectations, wishes and ideas come to mind and only in the end of the painting I decide if to paint the text in there or not.
At times the titles of the paintings will hint to the viewer what the text really says or means.
Can you give us some insight into how you title your work?
I usually think of the title of the painting first before painting the painting. I normally associate the title to a situation I am experiencing, a conversation I overheard or a sentence I already heard in a song for instance. And then match the title to the first image that comes to mind.
Like in word games I suppose this is my personal game or wish.
What artists have you looked at the most over the years? Who are you looking at now?
I look at so many painters and artists from different times. From my peers who I feel like I have a visual and friendly relationship to older artists who I wish I have met in their life time.
I feel though that today I look at women artists who I believe weren’t appreciated in their time as they deserved to be and who observed those other worlds of mysticism and spirituality when in their time they were not encouraged to. From Hilma Af Klint who I believe produced ahead of her time, Louise Nevelson, Agnes Pelton, Gerogia O’keeffe and the list goes on.
Other contemporary painters who I admire are Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Ed Ruscha, Kerstin Bratsch, Katharina Grosse, John McAllister, Philip Hanson and so many many more…
What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
When I lived in Jerusalem during my undergrad studies there was an uprising called the second intifada and living in Jerusalem around that time was rough. However, what I loved most about living there was the landscape which has so many layers of information and history. Each Neighborhood was on a different mountain and together these mountains form the city. The sublime landscapes, light and atmosphere have a huge impact on my work up till this day. When I arrived back to New York I realized that one of my hobbies is to drive around the city and collect information of the landscape. I feel that certain landscapes which I lived in and the memories I have of them have an effect on me and on my studio practice every day.
What is a typical day like for you?
I’m mostly productive in the studio during the day. I like to wake up early and drink my two cups of coffee in my studio while looking at reproductions and images I collect online, Read the paper, read my horoscope (very important), listen to conversation radio (Because it can get lonely), open the door to the yard and welcome the street cat who lives around the studio (in Tel Aviv) and then I start painting, normally till the late afternoon. Then I’ll take a short break and go back till the early evening.
And if I’m in a particular mood a good walk around the block will help set things straight in my mind and figure out those thoughts from the studio.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done? Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
I need good light, space and privacy. When I had my studio in Brooklyn it was a ride from my apartment in Queens and I would drive up to Bushwick every day and found that the drive up there had a significant effect on my work. Being alone and collecting my thoughts is very important to me before making work. Now a days, my studio is in Tel Aviv in a live/work space but I have a lot of privacy and that is important.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your mood or energy in the studio?
In Tel Aviv there are a lot of street cats and nature in my area. I find that having these kitties and my sister’s cat Tulik visiting me everyday uplifts my spirit. Other than that, When I am away from New York I truly miss the artist community I was in touch with and having conversations with my artist friends is very important to me. Thanks goodness for the technology, it helps a lot to speak to so many amazing artists and friends when in the other side of the world.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc. that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
I like to read conversations between writers and painters and specifically between poets and painters. But lately I’ve been reading mostly poetry. I’m reading at the moment a collection of poems by Rilke who has been a very big influence to me and I’m reading “After Dark” by Haruki Murakami.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I listen to a very wide range of music. Music is the most important component in my studio, if it’s not there I won’t be able to work the way I would like. I like to listen to conversation radio as well, Philip Glass, Classical, movie Soundtracks, Hiphop, electronic music… it really depends on whatever mood I am.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Time. Take your time to understand who you truly are and what you are interested in.
For years I had a studio practice without showing my work and it took many years for me to understand what I am interested in and what and why I am looking at and I am still learning to this day.
What are your go-to ways to find out about interesting shows or up-and-coming artists?
It’s mostly word to mouth, the internet and interviews and critics in art magazines but I’m also an Instagram addict and that’s how I know of everything that is coming up and can see what others are up to in their studios as well if I can’t come by to visit them.
What is one of the things that might be most beneficial to your career as an artist at this point?
Meeting my peers—artists who I admire and good friends who appreciate and are able to communicate and understand and have deep conversations with them about our work.
You split your time between New York City and Israel—can you tell us more about what it’s like to live in two places? Do you have a studio in both places?
Around the end of 2015 I decided to move my studio practice to Tel Aviv where my family lives because New York was getting to expensive for me and it was hard for me to manage a studio practice while working in several day jobs. In Tel Aviv I don’t have to worry about making ends meet however, it can get lonely out there at times and I miss the vibrancy and my community in New York , so I fly back and forth and live between both places for the last two years.
Part of me is happy that I am part of two distinct worlds. This definitely has a very significant impact on my work and studio practice. Also, because I can experience different imagery in person and also because I can meet several people from different parts of the world.
What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
Although they are not recent but two shows that I still think of often are Holly Coulis’s latest show at Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery and Nicholas Party’s last show at Karma Gallery in NY. I admire both of these artists studio practices, their individuality and playfulness in their work is a huge inspiration for me.
Also, one of my favorite exhibitions this year was the Edvard Munch retrospective at the Met Breuer. Seeing his paintings in person was a phenomenal experience.
Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
I love music, watching films and playing with pets :)
You co-operate and artist-run project called The Willows in New York City with artist Emily Weiner. Can you tell us more about the project? What was the impetus to start the project? and what types of exhibitions do you show?
I met Emily during Grad school and we are very close friends to this day. During school we met several artists and friends and when we finished our studies we missed our conversations with them and thought it would be important to keep the community together and invite new people into it. So we started an artist run project space called “The Willows” in a historic building on Willow street Brooklyn Heights where she lives.
What began as a gathering, party and a small exhibition grew into a more prolific project and exhibition series and at times we showed outside of her space at the Willows. For example we had a show about a year ago on the rooftop of the Lord and Taylor building located on 5th Avenue which was pretty incredible.
We start with a general theme (past themes have included Home, Collaboration, Ice Storm, Equinox etc.) and ask artists to contribute work that speaks to some interpretation of what that might mean to them. We don’t normally curate, aside from inviting artists we think are making great work and who can relate to the specific theme. Often artists will show something out of the ordinary or new for them and kind of test it out in a context that is different from where their work usually shows.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I will be participating in the exhibition “The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and contemporary art” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas which will be opening on May 26th. And after will travel to the North Carolina Museum of Art and the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut which is curated by Lauren Haynes and Chad Alligood.
I’m excited about this show which will be exhibiting a number of significant contemporary artists and peers who are Impacted by Georgia O’Keeffe and will be showing our work alongside a retrospective of O’Keeffe’s paintings.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Sharona and her work, check out her website.