April 23, 2010
Seeing Is Believing
Alexa Meade has captivated audiences with a new and exciting approach to contemporary portraiture. The Washington DC-based installation artist paints directly on the three-dimensional surfaces of found objects, live models and architectural subjects that she then incorporates into a series of installations. Her work creates a perpetual shift in how we experience and interpret spatial relationships. Meade’s ‘Living Paintings’ have recently received overwhelming interest leading to an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Last week I had the opportunity to meet with Alexa in her studio to discuss her work, her inspiration, and how she creates such powerful images.
First of all how does it feel to have been struggling for less than 6 months as a starving artist to now having a deal to exhibit at the Saatchi Gallery in London? How are you coping with all the attention?
Yeah. It definitely caught me off guard because my goal was to have a slow and steady development to my career and gradually build my portfolio over time and get more recognition as I mature but I can see why people were so fascinated with my project.
So how did this happen?
On March 10, a blog named kottke.org posted a picture of my art without notifying me and from there it got picked up on a couple other smaller blogs and then a bigger blog picked it up and it just spread like wildfire and then mainstream media started picking it up. It’s been really interesting because I went before from being in my studio practically everyday, just making art and being kind of quiet, maybe going out to networking events, and now, all of a sudden, back-to-back phone interviews and all these requests for bizarre commercial ventures and it’s gotten a little bit away from the art over the past month and I am really looking forward to bringing it back.
Have you decided what to show at the Saatchi? I assume it’s an installation?
Yeah, it’s six months away and I have been talking with them a little bit. My ideal goal is to have a full installation with an interactive video feed and also exhibit prints. However we are still working out the details.
Now tell me, you are also exhibiting at Postmasters in New York this month?
Yes. The show opened April 2nd and is up through May 8th. It’s a show on contemporary portraiture and I am showing along with eight other artists and it is quite humbling to be among them because one of them is in the Whitney Biennial [Kate Gilmore] and she is listed as an artist to watch, another one is having his art shown at the Tate Modern [Chris Verene]. It’s a beautiful show.
I know its ancient history, but I remember the first time I was exposed to your work at Longview Gallery for the readysetDC re-launch party. How would you describe the local response to your work?
There was a lot of enthusiasm and energy around it and I really have a lot of fun when I get to exhibit my live art and have people interact with it. I think that the enthusiasm in DC has paralleled the enthusiasm I have seen in other places around the world. It is great to have my community be so excited and supportive.
Your work is particularly interesting and innovative. In my opinion a perfect take of the portrait for this day and age, painting directly on the body and face. What is the source of your inspiration?
Right. Well this project has evolved over the course of a year and a half, actually more than a year and a half now. It originally started out with me being inspired by shadows cast by the sun and I wanted to paint shadows as they fell on the landscape, to paint shadows cast by trees onto the grass. I just continually push this idea of painting the surface attributes of materials and then eventually it moved from shadows to also highlights, you know, glare, painting that on it and then painting the colors. And then, all of a sudden it got to this point where I realized I was doing interesting things with space and then I brought that to the human body.
Can you tell me what other artists work you admire most? Are they all contemporary artists or are you interested in Art history. How do you feel about the old masters?
My favorite artist is Robert Irwin. I read his book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees which I found really inspiring and I can say its one of my favorite books of all time at this point. I like Roy Lichtenstein’s approach to painting. In terms of figurative painting I really like Alice Neel. I really appreciate Degas; I am always in awe of his portraits. Édouard Manet…there’s Van Gogh of course; those aren’t so much old masters. [Johannes] Vermeer is incredible.
Viewers seem compelled to stop and stare at your work. You as an artist have given the audience license to look closely, to decipher and discover what one is looking at. You still can’t touch can you?
I try not to have people touch the artwork. I mean it’s the same as if you have a sculpture in a museum or a painting on a wall. As you can see right now I am sitting on my artwork (Alexa is sitting on a stool that she has painted for an installation) and I’ve also painted a number of things that I have incorporated into useful tools. I have painted on fruit and then eaten it after painting it. So, I touch it. I ingest it.
The images you create are powerful and they command attention. Your work makes one question one’s own eyes. Looking at photographs of your work I often have to remind myself I am looking at an actual human figure or face rather than an acrylic representation on canvas. The images are quite startling, even unsettling. I find there is a dark, evocative nature to your work. You don’t seem to be painting and laughing. Is this a conscious decision on your part?
I like that… I am not painting and laughing. Yeah, I think that is also part of my aesthetic and originally this project grew out of this idea of painting shadows and literally the absence of light and I am also incorporating that into my portraits of people. I like dramatic lighting and I like casting these people as, you know, super representations of themselves, like a personification of themselves but in a way that’s even more dramatic than the original.
Is it more difficult to express joy or ecstasy?
Not necessarily. There’s some though that I have painted that are ... (Phone rings). For some commissioned portraits I work with the people and really try to paint something they will be pleased with and I think about their character and they do end up being more light and sprightly. Those I don’t choose to put on-line but I can show you samples.
Reading a face, tracing it with acrylic paint and distorting it as well is quite brilliant. Your work does seem to be testing the boundaries of portraiture as we have known it. I see it as a blurring of the line between portraiture and composition. How do you feel about it?
There is this living 3-dimensional component to my work and I come from a sculpture background so I am really interested in how objects interact with each other within a space. So I will set up these installations with dramatic shadows, like casting a shadow on a wall, and it’s as if they’re, frozen in that moment of time because if they move slightly then their shadow no longer matches up and it’s a completely different picture.
Is the important thing the setting, the lighting, the pose or the painting on the subject?
Right. It’s a combination of them all. Honestly the lighting isn’t that important because I paint the shadows so strongly or the brush strokes that even in the lighting of the subway it still holds up. I’ve taken many of my subjects outdoors in multiple lighting conditions but when I am setting up an installation with the person in a setting around them all of the objects relate to each other in a certain way and there’s this dynamic that I like to maintain.
Tell me how you pick your models?
Before November it was mostly my friends, I painted my sister several times and then I started getting more requests and there were too many people who wanted to be painted so now I primarily do commission portraits. These are people who have either seen my work in galleries or they have contacted me through the internet, and we set up a time and I paint something that is true to my vision but that also they will like and feel is an accurate representation of them. I still paint friends but I use them more as guinea pigs these days, and that means that I just experiment with them and I try out new techniques. There is no expectation that it is going to be a masterpiece. Kind of a get what you paid for maybe.
How do the models cope in an installation? Are they given instructions, are they inclined to fidget? Are they asked not to respond to the scrutiny and commentary from those who are observing them?
What I think is so interesting about my art is that most painters paint on canvas that sits on a wall and it is done whereas mine, the art is the person who is embodying a portrait of themselves and so since they are painted as themselves I also want them to be themselves. I ask them to bring to the table what they want too. I give them some limited guidelines as in talk with the people but don’t laugh too much because that will kill the mood, or something. It is important that the models are comfortable and that they have fun because they are the artwork and I want them to express themselves as they would express a portrait of themselves.
How do viewers react to the installation work? I am thinking of the guards outside of Buckingham Palace who must remain completely still. If they are allowed to move doesn’t it change the composition?
The models are allowed to move. I can show you some pictures of a model in one of my installations in a gallery in Baltimore [Positron Gallery] that is not online in which she is interacting with people, talking, and gesticulating. I also let them get up from their chair, walk around and talk to people too.
What projects are you working on now?
I am pushing the current living painting by hand a number of directions, just through using it as experiments. I am trying to move into film. With the portraits I don’t think I want to get into details about what specifically I am doing but I am exploring more things that have to deal with either identity or with how we interpret imagery.
Anything else you would like to tell the readers of project culture vulture?
I grew up in DC and it’s awesome. I am looking forward to showing here more, even as I start doing more international shows. I am also talking with four local galleries about setting up solo shows but as yet none of the dates are confirmed.
Thank you, Alexa. Many congratulations on all your success.
Posted by culturevulture at 2:25 PM