Elisheva Biernoff, Conversation, 2014-2015
acrylic on plywood, painted both sides, 3-1/2 x 4-7/8 inches [8.9 x 12.4 cm]

Elisheva BiernoffReservoirs of Time

“The paintings are reservoirs of time and concentration, where everything is made on purpose. They are quiet and made over many months.”

Elisheva Biernoff

The below conversation was published to accompany the artist’s retrospective Reservoirs of Time, on view at the Nevada Museum of Art, October 21, 2023 – April 21, 2024.

In his monumental work À la recherche du temps perdu, or Remembrance of Things Past, French writer Marcel Proust invented a vivid world around lost time—moments in the past that were magically and involuntarily triggered by common events, like sipping tea and biting into a madeleine cookie. Elisheva Biernoff’s exhibition, Reservoirs of Time, features small-format paintings by the San Francisco-based artist, which are inspired by enigmatic photographs of other peoples’ lives that she encounters and that affect her in one way or another. One might think of these exquisitely rendered paintings as a Proustian madeleine, or the catalyzing agent that recovers lost memories. In contrast, however, to Proust’s ability to recall his own childhood experiences, Biernoff embodies an impossible act: the recollection of other people’s mementos through the act of painting, where the significance of the captured moment necessarily remains impenetrable to her and the viewer. Without the subject present to remember the represented event, the human experience behind the image remains consummately lost. In this sense her paintings are memorials to the unknown.

Instant, (recto) 2021
acrylic on plywood, painted both sides, 4 x 4 x 1/32 inches [10.2 x 10.2 x .1 cm]

The photographs she collects and gravitates towards are taken by strangers and evoke an element of ambiguity and pensiveness. Because she does not know the story of each picture, other than what she intuits by looking at it, she imagines and reflects on the anonymous traces of lives and places that are for the most part mysterious. These are images that have been discarded in some way or another, and that Biernoff has rediscovered in flea markets, salvage stores, or even on eBay. Each painting that she makes is an invented world and a way for her to imagine the events, people, and places embedded in each likeness. About memory, Biernoff remarks that it “is a slippery thing, and photographs are tricksters, supplanting actual memories, or distorting, exaggerating, redirecting.”[1] You could consider her as the ultimate caretaker of lost memories: of the singular moments of others who are, perhaps, no longer able to, or lack the desire to, remember those events themselves.

Bourne, 2018
acrylic on plywood, painted both sides, 3-1/4 x 4-1/8 x 1/32 inches [8.5 x 10.5 x .1 cm]

Biernoff paints and accumulates other peoples’ experiences, friends, relatives, and journeys, yet the verisimilitude of each painting is so exacting that upon first encounter with the object, it appears to be a photo, until inevitably, the aha moment occurs, and one becomes bewildered by the amount of time and skill poured into each image. Slow and methodical, her process typically unfolds over a period of about three to four months. In that “reservoir of time,” she completes one work that is the same diminutive size as the photograph she paints. Cumulatively, she constructs the image, layer by layer, detail by detail, adding small characteristics as she goes until eventually the work adopts a photographic quality. One might often associate this kind of representation as realism, yet the aspect of the unknown, or that which is ungraspable, takes the work in a different direction. A better description of her work is enigmatic realism. She begins each work with loose brushstrokes that sketch out the composition, then as she blocks in shapes and color, the detail in the image coalesces and the features get tighter and more focused until eventually, what originally resembled painting starts to look like something else. Furthermore, Biernoff continues on the reverse side, paying equal attention to the detail on the back as on the front. Using thin sheets of plywood, she paints both sides so that the verso also resembles the back of the photograph—a completely rendered object. The finished works are set on small hand-made shelves, or above bases so that multiple perspectives are possible.

Strike, 2021
acrylic on plywood, painted both sides, 3-1/2 x 3-1/2 x 1/32 inches [8.9 x 8.9 x .08 cm]

Recurring themes in Biernoff’s work—that inform which photographs she chooses to paint—include her interests in travel, the unfamiliar and strange, imperfections in the photographic image, the tension between banality and awe, and a sense of place in relation to scale. Examples of each can be identified in works present in this exhibition. In Instant (2021), Biernoff captures emulsion defects of a Polaroid photo taken of the sea. The brown, v-shaped section in the image, however, obscures any ability to identify the subject and location depicted in the picture. Similarly, rings of the chemicals beneath the surface appear at the base of the image. These effects are, of course, unintentional, but rather exist as vestiges of the life of the photograph. In effect, the incidental imperfections of one image becomes an intentional subject of Biernoff’s painting. A similar thing happens in Bourne (2021), along the lower jagged edge and along the sides. In describing the significance of the damage, Biernoff states, “The picture is degraded by its emulsion problem, getting less distinct, smaller, more faded, like a remembrance.”[2] She determines the titles after she completes the composition. In this case, the title was inspired both by the image and a quote from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet: “death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”[3] In the Shakespearean context, bourne (with the archaic spelling) refers to a boundary or destination. Moreover, the title creates a kind of visual pun, with the more common definition of “born” referring to the beginning of life—the opposite of what a graveyard suggests. For her painting Strike (2021), Biernoff chose a picture in which the color had started to shift, or was overexposed during the developing process. Yet, the bright yellow stripe that delineates the right side, somehow only enhances the white house that appears in the picture. Thus, the aberration becomes an effect that heightens the mood and composition when filtered through Biernoff’s eyes and hands.

Signal, (recto) 2021
acrylic on plywood, painted on both sides, 4 x 5-7/8 x 1/32 inches [101.6 x 14.9 x .1 cm]

Painting, for Biernoff, is an elegiac way to see and understand a photograph, given she spends so much more time looking at the image than the person who took the original picture. About her work, Biernoff reflects, “I’m getting to spend time with someone who is absent. Absent because they’re unknown to me, because they’re far away, because wherever they are, they’re either an older version of the person in the photograph or no longer living.”[4] She imbues her work with consideration, empathy, and a belief that every minute detail of the image is momentous and meaningful. In the process she creates a re-enchantment with the object, and formulates new memories—what we might call Proustian madeleines—that we can all share together, even if the actual, lived experience remains unknown.

—Apsara DiQuinzio, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, Nevada Museum of Art

[1] Recorded conversation between Frish Brandt and Elisheva Biernoff. Watch here
[2] Correspondence with the author, May 3, 2023.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Recorded conversation between Frish Brandt and Elisheva Biernoff, op.