In the foreground of “I Dreamt I Could Help You,” a large oil and acrylic painting on canvas by Eli Kauffman, two young persons confront each other through the open, driver’s side window of a bright, flame red car. We see the driver through a spiderweb of cracks in the windshield and cannot overlook the blood streaming from her nose or the dazed look in her eyes. Closer inspection reveals a deflated airbag in her lap. From outside, he appraises her condition anxiously. Two subtle, suggestive elements are her heart-shaped locket and the keys he holds: clues perhaps to the rest of the story.
The brilliant colors and light washing over the figures, who might better be called “characters” in acknowledgment of their parts in this narrative scene, retrospectively reveal that none of this is real. In fact, as the title gives away, it’s a dream image from the mind of the boy, who is seen in the background to be lying in bed, asleep. Once he is acknowledged, the scene in the foreground wheels in space, so that the car and the couple — the content of the dream — are seen to float above the dreamer. Even before the invention of chivalry, boys in training to be men must have imagined such scenes of rescuing their romantic objects of desire. Here, the threat comes from an automobile instead of a villainous rogue knight, and their concern for each other has a genuineness, a sincerity, in place of so much traditional posturing.
One of the things art can do is show a future world what life looked like in the past. That it hasn’t done this more often, or more successfully, is down to the preference of past cultures for holding up a mirror to appearances, rather than modes of behavior. Photographs in general, and motion pictures specifically, have changed that. Eli Kauffman, who uses plural pronouns, wishes to capture not only the look of their (and our) time, but to do so in a dynamic fashion. And so the paintings on display at Finch Lane may more strongly resemble magazine illustrations, movie posters, or paperback book jackets than the static tableaux that characterized so much of art history, wherein each figure seems to have paused at the ideal moment and to be self-consciously holding that pose.
If “I Dream I Could Help You” illustrates a single moment from a dream or a larger story, “The Tower” demonstrates how Kauffman can include the passage of time. Once again the painting “takes place” in a car, and again the driver appears to be a woman. Though she figures as the center of attention, gripping the wheel and levering herself around for a frightened look over her shoulder, the clues as to what she sees are spread around her. There are the headlights of a following car reflected in her windshield. In her central rearview mirror, a car is seen enveloped in flames. In the outside mirror, a match explodes into fire. These three excerpts cannot be happening simultaneously: presumably first she is followed, then a flame is ignited, and finally a car that was following her burns. In the minds of believers, a fourth clue would come first: a Tarot card, the ominous Tower, must have foretold the threat of disaster. If so, the surreal sky lends the proper atmosphere.
In another image, two hands shuffle a deck of cards from which another Tarot card, this time The Star, falls along with its much more positive promise. Two paintings share the title “Hold Still.” A dozen works each contain two subjects, while two others show three and one has four. Small groups, in other words. Intimate social events. If not precisely staring into each other’s eyes, most of the subjects at least glance at each other, their looks compromised by the way they also present themselves to the camera — that is, the artist’s eye, of course, but almost as if they were posing for a selfie, if selfies were ever this well composed and presented.
Older viewers might object to the idea that these paintings accurately present the way we are today. There are no political conflicts, no pandemics, no displays of hatred. To that, the artist and their evident audience might well reply that this is the part of today that merits capture: those who live with the threat that there will be no future, and go on living in the face of it; those who choose to interests themselves in each other’s welfare. Where older generations have never shown themselves eager to step aside for others, either in their actions or in their expectation that the future will necessarily look like them, here we see image after image of something entirely other. We don’t care, these youths reply; we know who we are and that we care about each other.
Eli Kauffman: Love is the Message, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Aug. 5.