Brow Beat

Oh Snap!: When Paintings Can Walk

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On a recent afternoon in Washington, D.C., a man covered entirely in paint got on the subway. Commuters carefully looked away. 

“People in D.C. are used to having crazy protestors and so they are used to averting their eyes,” recalls Alexa Meade, the artist who had spent eight hours that morning filling in the man’s body, face, and clothing with thick, careful brushstrokes.

When his back was turned, however, his fellow passengers stared openly. And in the photographs Meade took of the encounter, it’s easy to see why: It looks as if a painting from the National Portrait Gallery has leapt off its wall to go walking through the flesh-and-blood world.

Meade takes three-dimensional objects—mostly people—and paints over them in such a way that they look like two-dimensional paintings. Then she photographs them. When you examine the resulting artworks, it’s hard to know what’s really going on.

In some of her photographs, Meade leaves remnants of unpainted reality—placing her subject against blades of grass, for example, or among astonished onlookers. In others, she paints over everything—not just the model, but also the background and the props. If you look at these latter, entirely masked images without being familiar with Meade’s work, you might not suspect that there are living, breathing, humans under the brushstrokes.

Meade poses with one of her painted models. Copyright Alexa Meade. Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary.

Despite displaying a nuanced understanding of shadows and light, the 24-year-old has never taken a formal painting or photography course. Instead, she studied political science, interned on the Hill, and worked for Obama. It was immersion in this world of political theater that she credits for her fascination with the line between reality and perception.  

Using models as canvases requires extreme intimacy. “It almost reminds me of when you’re sitting on an airplane and you talk for eight hours,” she explains of the process of coating her subjects with a special mixture of acrylic paint and other substances.   

The most difficult model she ever painted, however, was herself. In one composition included in the gallery above, half of Meade’s face has been painted to make her look like a portrait. The wall behind her has been treated similarly, and the dividing line on her face matches up exactly with the dividing line on the wall. One arm, brush in hand, reaches from the unpainted side to the painted side—as if it might lead the 3D version of Meade into a flattened, fictional world. The result is beautiful and eerie in a way that’s somewhat reminiscent of the work of Liu Bolin, who paints himself into landscapes. Unlike Liu, who becomes nearly invisible, however, Meade’s painted self pops out.*

“I would say that project came pretty close to breaking my brain,” she says of the process. (Imagine trying to keep left and right straight as you not only paint—but also photograph yourself in the mirror). Fortunately, her brain remained whole, and her work is currently on display at the Irvine Contemporary gallery in Washington, D.C.

* Correction, Aug. 18: This post originally referred to Liu Bolin as Eli Klein; Eli Klein Fine Art is the gallery currently exhibiting Liu’s work.