THE LAYERS OF ALYSSA MONKS
Image: Alyssa Monks, Steamed
Alyssa’s paintings are deceiving; at first glance you think them intimate photographs and on further examination find them to be paintings. Her subjects, trapped in canvas, look strangely able to make you feel as if you were hanging between this reality and another.
HAHA MAG: For those who aren’t familiar with your work, is it a fair assessment to say it’s a form of hyperrealism?
Alyssa Monks: Honestly, I don’t know what the term hyperrealism is supposed to mean. Some people use it as a way to describe really good photorealism, which is not what I do, and seeing the work in person confirms that. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it’s the job of the artist to label their own work. I just paint it. I used to be concerned with replicating life perfectly and accurately. Now I’m more concerned with creating an illusion loosely based on reality, but with thick painterly strokes that look more like abstraction when you get up close. Ultimately, I just want it to be exciting to look at, unexpected and challenging. Some of that gets lost when it’s compressed down to a 3×5 jpeg, so I encourage people to see them in person before they label them anyway.
HM: You take photographs and turn them into paintings. How do you decide which photograph will ultimately become a painting?
AM: I take thousands of photographs. It helps me compose the picture. From there, I weed through them all and recompose, collage, recolor, crop, and ultimately create a reference that is a starting point for a painting. The painting is a whole other process and becomes really engaging about halfway through, when the photograph is abandoned and I’m just in the dialogue of painting. As far as choosing the right photographs, I take my time, look at them for hours, put them all away, look at them again later. It’s intuitive; I don’t think I’m always right. I find out much later.
HM: I notice that water is a prevailing theme in your artwork. Some of your paintings take us to stories between a bather and the shower; there you create this very ‘real,’ intimate relationship between the bather and the water: water dripping, water renewing, steaming up glass walls. Others scenes take place in pools, lakes, etc… What is your relationship with the water?
AM: I’ve always been drawn to water, especially warm water, since I was a child. I was known to venture into the pool unsupervised on more than a few occasions. As an adult, I still love the feeling of warm water around me…it’s the ultimate comfort. And visually it is an infinite world of constantly changing filters melting and disfiguring everything you can see through it like a distorted lens. It is unpredictable and complicated in how it refracts light and reflects images. As a teenager, I thought it was impossible to paint, so maybe it’s partly the challenge of painting something that misbehaves so much and can still be so beautiful. It’s versatile, it’s serene, it’s disruptive; it is basically an invisible lens, reflecting and refracting everything. I guess I just find it fascinating. And because of its nourishing and cleansing connotations, it’s loaded with personal associations. For me, it is simply the perfect subject right now. That might change, but it is for now. It lets me fulfill my love of creating illusions with paint, yet still enjoy the loose and delicious quality of spreading the paint like icing across the canvas.
Image: Alyssa Monks, The Race
HM: The first time I saw your work, I assumed they were photographs, until closer inspection. I have to say, I like the disorientation of the canvas being used as a sort of fabrication of reality. I suppose I derive joy in being mislead…and I’ve noticed you enjoy painting your subjects behind glass. And during such intimate moments, I might add. All I keep thinking Is that when the water has relaxed us, we let our guard down. Are you walling us off on purpose? Are you limiting our voyeurism?
AM: Ha. No, I don’t think so. I did about 25 paintings of fully nude figures in bathtubs with not much walling off or hiding anything… I think that, actually, when you create a bit of a puzzle or filter that the viewer has to work a little to “see” through, they become more engaged, and the final image can be more compelling. I’ve learned that subtlety is more interesting and attractive than heavy handedness. As far as the realism is concerned, I like that when you walk closer than three feet from the painting it is all just marks and paint blobs going every which way, and the illusion has disintegrated, doing the very thing that water does as a lens. Photography doesn’t do that.
HM: There are faces that appear in the midst of steam, eyes that peer out through the glass – they don’t look like mere reflections of a photograph. I feel like they’re having conversation; they look out from the canvas as if they knew you. Do you have a connection with your models?
AM: Absolutely. I have to feel comfortable with my models in order to paint them well. It is absolutely crucial to me that the women (and men) I choose are not merely models or subjects but are individuals with specific feelings and personalities. My relationship with them is constantly affecting my decisions while I paint. It’s like I’m having a conversation with them while I’m working. I do not want to create an idea of a person, or a generic figure at all….but nor am I really making portraits. Either one alienates me and the viewer, I think. I just want to relay that humanness that we can relate to. I want you to see yourself somewhere. Even if it is just in how the skin feels as it presses against the glass. You know your skin does that, too.
Image: Alyssa Monks,Fragment
HM: Even the distortion of flesh behind glass is so well executed. Can you tell us a bit about the process of achieving that?
AM: So much of the illusion can be created by just picking the right color. The drawing can be very loose if the color relationships are working. And once you have that, you can sculpt the paint into whatever surface feels good to you.
HM: I think we can all relate to the feelings of renewal a nice hot shower can provide. Can I pry and ask what types of emotions you dredge during your showers and of those what, if any, have showed up in your self portraits?
AM: This is a hard question to answer…honestly, my showers are usually rushed and as efficient as possible.
Image: Alyssa Monks, Pause
HM: What’s important to you about the moments you’ve exposed in your paintings? Are there any you feel are too sacred to share with us?
AM: I guess I feel that the more important something is, the more I would want to share it, albeit subtly. I want my paintings to be as honest as possible, never forced, and multi-layered.
HM: Last but not least, describe you work in a way you’ve never heard done before. Something you would attribute to it; something you think has escaped the public eye.
AM: Gestural. Physical. Sculptural.
* You can see Alyssa’s work at her upcoming solo show April 7 – May 8, 2010 at DFN Gallery, 74 East 79th Street, New York, NY 10075.