Lili Theilen, Nils Ben Brahim

It’s memories that we steal


Opening: 12.4.2024, 5 - 9pm

The exhibition „It’s memories that we steal“ brings together two young Berlin painters, Nils Ben Brahim and Lili Theilen.
Looking at their work, you might stumble across questions such as: How much of it is reality? Is this a depiction of dreams, or is it simply an exaggeration of reality? But perhaps the answers to such questions are not necessarily crucial in order to grasp the full effect of the work… 

Well, we know where we’re goin‘
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowin‘
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
Talking Heads, Road to Nowhere


Lili Theilen forms her subject matter by applying several layers of very thin paint to the canvas. The result is a contrasting effect: that of color having been removed. Having been reduced through application, the elements of the painting now seem to peel out of the shadowy background, lifeless and out of place in their monochrome state. Theilen’s varied subjects include knights, bouncy castles, teeth and keys, which may be easily categorized semiotically, but are better understood as having been brought together directionless and in a vacuum.

Although the movements in the works appear rigid, the sketchily drawn figures still carry a dynamic and fluid quality. The result is an interplay of hard and soft, strong and weak. There is a certainty that comes from this skillful balancing act, and it is this feeling that shrouds the very core of Theilen’s work. Through her abstractions and monochrome backgrounds, she pares down and thereby sharpens a story to its most important elements. The visual language may seem coded and surreal, but the moments that Theilen depicts are a reflection of what has shaped her past and present. With her empty backgrounds and reduced figures on large canvases, Theilen confidently makes space for herself which she then effortlessly fills. 

Nils Ben Brahim’s works have a distinct pull. At first glance some of the paintings appear to be exaggerations of digital photos that were photographed too brightly. This is often termed hyperrealism in the visual arts. But a closer look reveals the blend of soft and impasto brushstrokes with the luminous self-mixed colors of egg tempera and oil. Alongside these hyperrealistic works, Brahim also creates more abstracted and expressive paintings, allowing these different styles to enter into a dialogue with each other. 

There is always a wealth of detail in the figures that Brahim paints – who are most often friends or people from his close environment that he is fascinated by, such as wrestlers. It is therefore not just muscles that are visible under the skin, but rather a „sea“ of muscles partially filled over by skin. It is the details in his surroundings that interest him, enabling us to peak through the lens of his reality into what he experiences and feels.

The notion of portraying an honest and therefore unembellished reality may bring to mind the representatives of the Neue Sachlichkeit. But Brahim translates this idea into today’s world and into the words and actions of his generation. At one point or another in his works, specific places become recognizable as references or hints to reality. He himself says: „They are often Kreuzberg stories!“ Born in Berlin, Brahim sees life around him and wants to depict it. Everything that may lie underneath and hidden may remain there, but has no claims to his art.

You might imagine that when the two positions meet, an intense and mutually confrontational discourse will ensue. But because the effect of the works is so different, a balance is formed that gives each perspective room to breathe. Both artists are Berliners of the same generation, who paint their reality without any indication of a proper context. And despite the differences in expression, the works are equally visually powerful.

Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art-and in criticism-today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.“
Susan Sontag, 1982

Lena Glanz, April 2024