In the Studio with Sara Benninga

In the studio with Sara Benninga, an Israeli contemporary painter whose practice focuses on the human figure and narratives. We met with Sara to tell us more about growing up in Israel, their greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

In the past few years.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I was born in Israel to immigrant parents. They came here in the 1970s from the US (though my father was originally Dutch). My parents had certain ideals and values, like the importance of family, of working, of education, but they didn’t know how to talk about feelings. I think this is a characteristic of a lot of my generation (born in the 80s). Also, it could just be something that happens between parents and children – the gap between the generations. It’s very frustrating. As a child there were many times I didn’t understand what I was seeing or understood something I couldn’t see. This brought to my attention that seeing is not automatic, and neither is meaning. There is a real question regarding what you see and what meaning or interpretation you give it. This is still a big question for me.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work? 

I always drew and painted as a child, but then at some point I stopped. I returned to painting as an adult during a study year in Freiburg. I had a serious medical occurrence, and after I got out of the hospital I went and bought some oil paints and canvas. Painting creates a connection between the body and the psyche, and for me it was a way to touch something that I couldn’t see. On the one hand it is a very physical action, especially if you like to paint on big canvases, like I do, and on the other there is always the mental process of deciding what to paint or if you want to paint over something, or what colors to use and so on.

When I was in Freiburg I was studying art history, which is what I started studying at university. I was completing my MA. After I returned I enrolled in Bezalel art academy, and studied art and painting. When I finished the academy I rented a studio and started working. So, I’ve been painting in the studio for ten years now. I don’t think I’ve had one pivotal moment. I’ve had a few. With painting it is an ongoing process. I paint and paint, and at some point I feel like something has to change, or I try out an idea I had and say – look – this is a direction I’d like to develop. And so, my painting also changes. It is alive, and reacts to my life, and also, of course, to the studio process which is always developing.

I have found that exposing myself to different techniques gives new perspectives to painting. So, I’ve learned different kinds of print – etching, silk screen, and just recently woodcut. Each one of these makes me think anew about painting, and I love that.

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

The themes I work on touch on social relations, female sexuality and psychological angst. I work both intentionally and experimentally. When I started working in the studio, after art school, I focused on the subject of the family for a while. Many of the paintings I made between 2012 and 2017 were of my family, my parents, episodes I remembered, or dreams. Then I moved on to other themes, such as the Bacchanal and the pleasure garden on which I am now working. However, I usually don’t work on one theme alone. I try not to limit myself when it comes to painting. If I have an idea I want to pursue, I do it, and then it changes and something else is born. I might be working on a couple of paintings at the same time, or one or two may be set aside after the initial “moves” on the canvases. I have to let time do its thing.  A painting is also about feeling it – I mean – what works on the canvas, how it feels over time. So, there is always a chance to change a painting until it leaves the studio, or until I photograph it – then I usually draw the line (though not always).

The themes themselves come from my experiences and also from cultural and art historical subjects. I also have lists of things I’d like to do, and sometimes I’ll return to this list and pick something – and go from there.

My aesthetic is a synthesis of planned and arbitrary painterly gestures and actions, so, wild and cultured together. I use color patches and lines, patterns sometimes. It’s important to me to create a presence on the canvas.

Who & what are your greatest influences?  

I love Philip Guston’s painting and Paula Rego’s.

I love the intensity of German expressionism, such as Kirchner and more modern artists related to this style – such as Beckmann and Baselitz, but another great source of inspiration is Matisse and the way he simply turns figures and surrounding into harmonious patterns. 

I am very inspired by Dana Schutz and her gestural, narrative paintings, by Katherine Bradford and her figures that are on the verge of abstraction, David Hockney, especially his early paintings, Neo Rauch too. And also Miriam Cahn, who manages to paint a human tenderness and vulnerability. 

I also love to look at early modern painting and see how narratives and meaning are constructed there, from Giotto to Tintoretto to Rubens. I find it amazing that basically, because we are human, we like to make stories, even when they make no sense. Or that actually the sense is found in the story we make from what we see.

On that note – I also look at antique sculpture and reliefs.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

I like to use patterns in my paintings, so many times I take photos of floor tiles with geometrical or floral patterns.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

I want people to be enticed by my paintings. I want a viewer to be caught in the enigmatic instance of the painting. This “catching” is not related to the subject, it is more of a question that arises from the painting itself – what am I looking at? How can that story be told? Why is it told in this way? In the end the viewer has to tell him or herself what is going on, but my part is to present this catch. I like to obstruct things in my paintings, and then fix them. Some paintings are difficult, some come more easily.

I don’t know my audience yet, but I want to have one.

Mostly I create within my studio economy. I make work based on my needs, and things I want to develop out of my painting. One work may lead to another. I try not to judge and over think this process.

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?

I always feel that my mental state is the real catalyst for change in my painting. Painting is based on how I see. The question I have in front of me is how to push my boundaries. The moment I am locked on something, even if I don’t want to see that way anymore, even if I am looking for a way out, it takes time. So, there are times in which I say to myself – I don’t want to paint like this anymore. I want more from painting. This usually is a point that leads to change.

Some life events that have mobilized change in my practice were the death of my father and my first solo exhibition – which showed me I could be heard in some way, or that my painting can have a resonance.

I do experiment. For instance, I try starting a painting in a different way, or changing the gesso I work with, starting with an acrylic layer before the oil, or adding new sizes of brushes, and so on.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

The best catalyst for creating “good” work is the rhythm of work in the studio. Painting is all about praxis for me. Some of my best paintings could not exist without the other works which were created before them, and maybe are “less good”. In this sense there is no such thing as a “good” painting. Sure, in terms of the critique or audience there might be, but in terms of my practice – it includes it all – the good and the bad and the in between. This is part of life. Nothing is always good. I try to remember that.

Tell us the inspiration behind your works?

Carried Away – I am interested in the idea of being carried. I used to like to lean on people – well – lean on my partner – for instance. As if I were tired, and had to be carried. So, the woman being carried by two figures – she is inspired by this feeling. It is also a question of boundaries – think of the phrase – “carried away” – it can be meant literally, but it can also mean overstepping one’s limits, getting carried away (another tendency I have). So what is it?

Something in the future you hope to explore?

​​I want to explore and develop the question of scale – larger figures, larger canvases. Right now the figures are as big as me, more or less.

Another point of exploration is painting on linen, which I have just started doing. The color of the linen, and its rougher texture, change a lot in a painting. I also want to experiment with different painting tools. I already use different sized brushes, and have another few kinds of tools lined up.

And there is a list of subject matter that I look forward to developing. Things always take more time than I suppose at the beginning.