Other artists may attempt to breathe life into inanimate things, Alexa Meade turns the whole idea of still life on its head – by turning living things into inanimate paintings
Text by: Dionne Ang, Pictures by: Alexa Meade
Born in 1986, Alexa Meade was raised in Washington DC, naturally immersed in the culture of politics and spent her teenage years interning on Capitol Hill. Going on to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Alexa graduated with a B.A. in political science in 2009, all set to take on a ‘real world’ career in politics. But the contemplation of light falling on a blade of grass would take her down a completely different path – a path that has left anyone who’s ever told her to get a “real job” far behind in her wake. Fast forward to 2014, now based in L.A. Meade’s refreshing take on classic artistic conventions have created a significant impact across the world of art – playing with trompe l’oeil, reinventing the theme of portraits and even pushing the logic of one of Western art’s greatest inventions, the representation of perspective in painting.
“Your body is my canvas”, that’s how Meade summarizes her art most succinctly. Meade literally paints shadows, light and every shade in between onto her subjects, turning each living subject into still life. Thereafter, she carefully photographs the painted subjects, the only means to preserving her art. Apart from the clever twist on tricking the eye into looking at 3D subjects in 2D, it is the ephemeral nature of her work that is most poignant and compels you to look as closely as you can before it is washed off. The temporal essence and uncontrollable change is captured most accurately in her collaboration with Sheila Vand: MILK. Meade paints on Vand and submerges her in a trough of milk, capturing the effect of paint on skin, skin on milk, colour running into white…
Perhaps never being classically trained as an artist is Meade’s strongest suit – it gives her free reign to find expression of space and objects in space unfettered by preconceived rules. Meade takes time out to share how contemplating light falling on blades of grass and the visual illusions the play of shadows and light propelled her into the world of art.
As a child, did you already exhibit signs of painting “outside the box”?
I had been told a lot as a kid that art was a hobby, not a career and I better be ready to find a “real” job when I’m a grown up. While my passion was art, I hadn’t really entertained the possibility that it was a viable career option. Growing up in Washington, DC, I was immersed in the world of politics and spent my teens interning on Capitol Hill. I studied political science in college and I wrote my thesis on the Obama Campaign where I’d served as press staffer in 2008. I took some sculpture classes in college that really influenced the way I viewed space and relationships between objects. I often times draw upon my past in sculpture in thinking about how to push the concepts in my work.
What inspired you to paint on a blade of grass?
I first had the seed of the idea for this project back in 2008. During one of my sculpture classes, we had an assignment that challenged us to describe a landscape without actually making a sculpture of a landscape. My solution was to describe the surrounding space through the shadows cast on the immediate space. And so I started thinking about painting shadows directly on the ground. Fast forward nine months later and I’m painting shadows on people. The idea then evolved into painting the gradient of light in grey scale and then painting in a full spectrum of color on top of people in 2009. This has morphed into several directions over the years. I came together with a collaborator, Sheila Vand in 2012 for a series of painted portraits submerged in a pool of milk. The milk washed off the body in a way that created beautiful, unpredictable swirling patterns around her body.
Do you think there are some aspects about a career in politics that mirror what you now do in art?
Working on the side of the politics that dealt with spin and PR, I became really fascinated by how we interpret information and the mismatch between what is said and what is heard. I carried over my interest in managing perceptions into my art, prompting me to explore the different ways that visual perception can be manipulated. I’m really interested in masks and how we can nuance our personal presentation and affect the demeanors of different personas. It’s through our faces that others know us, and to a certain extent, how we know ourselves. And what if that outside changed… how would that change who we see ourselves as?
Exploration and discovery are strong elements that come across in your art. What happens when a project evolves in a direction separate from what you envisioned?
If I can imagine something, I can already see it. I like to use my imagination as the jumping off point, but I find that it’s really through the process of being hands on, that I have reached moments of insight where I find things that I could not have seen otherwise.
What is it about the notion of 3D and 2D perspective that interests you?
One thing I like about the work is that, when you approach it for the first time, you don’t quite know what it is you’re looking at. However, if you look closely at it, there’s so many clues suggesting that there is something more beneath the surface. You can find depth in the glossiness of the eyes and the texture of the hair.
Despite the very tangible human presence, our brains override this information and start to create alternate stories for how the work could have possibly been made. It’s difficult to imagine the simultaneity of the multiple dimensions in just one image. I like the idea of challenging the expectations of the picture plane and how easily our perceptions can be altered. It shows that there can be more there than meets the eye and seeing isn’t necessarily believing.
Your recent collaboration with Sheila Vand was very successful. What is it about a collaborative process that you enjoy? What are the challenges?
When Sheila and I first got together, we were interested in exploring a range of ideas, many of which were unrelated to paint, photography, and portraiture. While experimenting on these side projects we looped back to my main body of work and came up with an interesting twist. What if instead of having static elements in the portrait, everything were to be in flux and constantly evolving? We started playing with the idea of photographing Sheila’s painted portrait as reflected off the surface of rippling water. It created a strikingly surreal, warped image of her painted face. This sparked us to explore other methods for creating portraits incorporating a liquid element. Then we were struck by the idea of using milk as an opaque liquid canvas to disembody and re-shape the human form.
What projects are you busy with at the moment that can we look forward to?
My side projects have similar thematic undercurrents of reshaping our perceptions of the world we see around us, but through very different means. I’m currently working on a live performance piece that makes use of dead media. In stark juxtaposition to the low tech, I’m also developing a virtual reality art experience for the Oculus Rift.
Who are the artists whom you admire? And can you share with us your personal favourite piece of art at home?
I am a huge fan of Robert Irwin. I would highly recommend the book “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees” [ By author, Lawrence Weschler. The book documents conversations across 30 years with Robert Irwin, American installation artist].
You were painting live in Tokyo is September 2013 – can you tell us a bit more about that project? Do you see yourself exhibiting or working more in Asia?
MINI Cooper commissioned me to paint a car and live models at one of the busiest intersections in Tokyo – in front of Shibuya 109. Painting live on the street in front of thousands of people definitely jolted me outside of my normal state of mind and inspired new creativity made me become “more present” in my environment. I don’t have any confirmed dates for future exhibits in Asia at the moment, but I am very interested in pursuing my options there
For more information and contact details for private commissions, visit www.alexameade.com or facebook.com/alexameade.
The article first appeared in Vol 1 of Gallery & Studio Magazine.