A well-executed, if fairly usual impressionist painting right? Wrong. The canvas is actually human skin, and the model has been encased in acrylic paint to create a '3D' take on a classic style. Taking the street show idea of painting skin and posing as a living sculpture way beyond its natural conclusion, 23-year-old Washington-based artist Alexa Meade paints people. Or as her website explains, she “perceptually compresses three dimensional space into a two dimensional plane”.
Either way, the end result – a transient combination of installation, painting, photography, performance, sculpture and video – is pretty unbelievable. Even as I type this, over my shoulder, someone in the office is going, “No ways, I don’t believe it!” We spoke to Alexa to find out more.
I paint directly on people because I’m interested in exploring the tensions between being and permanence.
Being and permanence?
I like the idea of creating something that will be destroyed immediately upon completion. Once the performance is resolved, the model rips off the acrylic mask and all that endures is a photographic print documenting the time-based event. I don’t sell installations or anything with a painted surface. The only thing you can own is a photographic index of my representational painting.
Have you tried animals?
I like to paint on food, plants and other organic subjects that will decay over time. I have yet to paint on live animals, though I have a bulldog that I don’t think would mind modeling for me. We have an understanding.
Did your first ever subject take some convincing?
When I asked my first model if I could paint him, he of course assumed the relevant preposition was 'of' instead of ‘on’. So he really didn’t know what he’d gotten in to until the first brushstroke graced his cheek.
How’d it turn out?
My first attempt turned out so well that I still include it in my portfolio.
Do you prefer painting people you know or random hired models?
I’ve never hired or paid a model to sit for me. I really like painting strangers. It’s very intimate sitting centimeters from my models for several hours during the painting process. Conversations wander over all kinds of territory and you wind up feeling like you know something about the model, even while I’m technically disguising them.
How long do your subjects have to sit still covered in paint, on average?
I do a lot of prep work by painting the clothes and background beforehand, but it typically takes about a couple hours to paint the subject’s face.
And when they’re part of an installation?
The model arrives a couple hours before the show to be painted and sits in the installations for the duration of the opening, typically two-three hours. For the show at the Saatchi Gallery, however, I exhibited the performance for eight hours a day for three days straight.
How do they react to the finished photographs of themselves?
Even though the models are involved at every step and see the progression of the painting before their eyes, they always react vividly to the full, finished product.
What kind of paint do you use?
I use a special blend of 13 secret ingredients, including non-toxic acrylic paint.
Is the process in constant evolution or did you crack the case early on?
The underlying process behind flattening the image has stayed the same, but I’m constantly pushing the boundaries of my art.
How did people on the train react to your moving painting, ‘Transit’?
Most people tried to avoid direct eye contact, but were incredibly curious and would steal a glance the moment he looked the other way. Since he was such a show stopper, many people didn’t realise that there was photographer in tow and I got to capture their honest reactions.
How much room is there for experimentation and playing around?
Sitting at a crossroads between sculpture, photography and painting gives me a myriad of avenues to explore.
How do you practice and conceive your work?
I’m constantly experimenting in my studio. Often, dozens of mock ups and drafts will inform the final piece.
Are there any other artists out there doing similar work?