Magdalena Sawon, owner of the Postmasters Gallery in New York, pointed out that ‘a portrait is something that’s been with us for 3,000 years – that’s not an easy genre to move forward.’ She was referring to the fascinating achievement of modern artist Alexa Meade’s work – a heady fusion of portrait, performance and photography.
Meade is an American artist specialising in sculptural media, installation art and modern portrait – with some filming in her repertoire as well. Now 27 and a successful professional artist, she comes from a political background (she holds as BA in Political Science, and has worked in PR at Obama’s Denver headquarters). Meade has said this ‘led to a fascination with the possibilities of repackaging source texts and adding superficial modifications that would profoundly alter perception.’ She never attended an art school, or even took advanced art classes.
Perhaps having barely any background in art has made it easier for her to be ground-breaking. Her work is raw and real, blurring the line between fiction and reality – she believes that ‘what one experiences cannot always be interpreted at face value; seeing is not necessarily believing.’
Meade’s ‘Reverse Trompe L’Oeil’ installation was first revealed in October 2009. She applies acrylic paint in large brush-strokes directly to her subjects’ bodies, then photographs them in different settings. When the 3D installation (or ‘performance’) is reproduced in a 2D photograph, the effect is an unsettling piece – close to, but not completely, an oil painting.
One of the best works to demonstrate her unique method is her 2010 self portrait – ‘Alexa Split in Two’. It is a photo of a performance of the artist imitating herself. The real Alexa reaches over from one side, to create a semi-fictional Alexa with art on the other. The colour, tones and contours she imposes on her subjects are similar to those present in Lucian Freud’s later work. She brings out harsh, exaggerated lines on the face by enhancing shadows and emphasising bone structures, framing faces with angular eyebrows.
Another intriguing work is her series named ‘Transit’ – photographs showing a performance by a live model, painted with acrylic, in the rush-hour subway. Surrounded by people, the model looks out of place – it is like a fantasy in which a figure from a work of art who has found himself in real life. The juxtaposition also shows the power of paint – the overstated contours and colours on the subject make his figure infinitely more expressive and extraordinary than the real-life humans around him.
Her portraits are dynamic and powerful. They showcase the strength painting can give to a subject, but seem to convey more real emotion, as the eyes of the figure remain real and unmasked. It is the subject’s eyes that are always the most unsettling thing about her photographs – we first see an acrylic portrait, but live eyes staring back at us jar with their surroundings, and make the divide between photography and painting hazy.
Meade has described her technique as ‘painting a portrait of somebody on top of himself.’ Her innovative imagination has created works that trick the eye and confuse the senses. The intersection of painting, photography, performance and installation bring together new techniques with old in one stimulating modern mix. And, indeed, gives something new and exhilarating to a genre over 3,000 years old.
With thanks to alexameade.com for photos.