Alyssa Monks began painting in the womb. She fashioned a paint out of amniotic fluid and placenta and used the inner uterine wall as her canvas.She was born under a full moon and can transform into a giant Eagle at will. She was also on our Top 100. Her interview follows. Read it.
As a kid did you like to fog up windows and mirrors and draw on the condensation?
I think I did. I haven’t thought about that in a long time, but I do remember doing that in the shower or in the backseat of the car on a rainy day.
Your paintings run the gamut of emotions, the only constant is the use of water and condensation and the look of the subjects pressed against glass, what are you trying to convey with this? Is there any specific topic you’re trying to address?
A few actually…
-oily water references amnio fluid suggesting rebirth, or a return to the womb, where we are not separated by the labels and circumstances of our lives.
-women in water is a response degas (and many many others) bathing women when women were seen as objects for the male gaze, my women are confronting, aggressive and natural and real
-mortality, destructiveness vs. cleansing and life giving qualities of water
-sexuality vs. violence and being a woman in a woman’s body in a woman’s mind in contemporary western culture
-abstraction as a means of reality: my work attempts to tow the line between the two and creates a necessity of one for the other whereas for decades they have been in defiant opposition to each other.
-psychologically, our perceptions are only abstractions of reality
Did you have models pose for you? Did you looks at photos? Or did you paint from your imagination?
All three actually. I used myself as a subject many times but the advantages of being freed up from being my own subject give me more control so I choose mainly friends, or friends of friends or family as my subjects. I try to pick people that I have a relationship with of some sort, or create one at least. I take thousands of photos, almost like movie stills, and rework, collage, recolor, crop, interpret, etc. once the painting process starts, the photo gives me good ideas for drawing and color and composition, but the paint application and decisions about detail and many other aspects are invented and left up to intuition based on experience, and what I want the painting to look like and the photo ends up on the floor under my feet.
What is the significance of your use of water? What about the nudity of your subjects?
I have been attracted to water since I was a child, having nearly drowned a few times because I couldn’t stay away. Water can be both good and bad, nourishing and destructive, like many things in life. Those kinds of dichotomies interest me. My work speaks about women and what it means to be a woman in our contemporary world, the shedding and also owning of the male gaze, and still the violence against women that perpetuates. Water creates the tension of all these elements being thrown together in to become one subject. I began painting water about 7 years ago or so. I started to paint bathtubs and flesh underwater and just revel in the weirdness that water has on the flesh. Since then it has just gotten more complicated using water, steam, drips, Vaseline, vinyl, glass, etc, to obfuscate the form and create a filter through which the viewer must search out pieces of the form as it comes into focus, and then becomes destroyed or broken, then becomes clear again.
Scream is one painting that strikes me as particularly emotional, can you tell us what you were feeling when you painted it?
This is one of the last self-portraits if not the very last one I’ve done. it is part of the glass shower door series. i usually prefer to have my subjects without any specific outward facial expression or emotion. and even though she is very emotional, there are a few different interpretations of her emotional state. i know i wanted something that felt like a force was acting on the glass, pushing the flesh against the glass, against the inside of the picture plane, causing this explosion of thick paint strokes and distortion of the form. it is probably the one that most suggests violence and aggression towards women of all my work. although it is ambiguous as she could also be in the throws of orgasm or joy. feelings are ambiguous in life. and they pass no matter how strong they are. in a painting, they stay there, frozen over time with some but very little room to change. the ambiguity gives them a little room to shift.
Can you walk us through the process of Soft?
I called the subject of this series and asked to photograph her. When she said yes, I booked a flight to Florida where she lived immediately. I stayed 48 hours and took 4,000 pictures. Those pictures kept me busy for years. It was the glass shower door series where I was interested in steam, water drops and pressing the flesh against the glass. I like how making elements act on each other can make flesh feel more fleshy, glass feels more like glass, water more wet. It was an experiment. Once I found the composition, the painting process was very immediate and direct. The illusion is secondary to the surface quality so the less fussing and rendering, the better. I’m trying to create the moment where paint becomes atmosphere, steam, water, flesh and not really cross the line into seamless illusion completely. I want to express what is sculptural about paint at the same time playing with layers of artifice.
I was really impressed by the condensation effect, particularly where there seem to be trails left by running water, can you explain how you achieved these two effects?
You have to paint the layers of atmosphere all at once, putting one next to the other in perfect color relationship, rather than on top of each other. I mostly paint it wet into wet. The trick is understanding color and temperature and how they change as the value changes. Then it’s about using your eyes and staying with it until you believe it.
How long did it take to perfect the appearance of condensation? How develop the technique?
It is still developing. like I said above, it is about color relationships. The application gets looser and thicker the more confident I get that the illusion will succeed the way I want it to. It’s experimenting and observing what happens. Letting paint be paint, and not struggling with it or trying to dominate it too much. That’s painting, though, in general. For the elements in my paintings, they are contextually dependent, without each other they are just abstract paint strokes. It’s the same with color. You need two colors in a relationship to know if they are the right colors.
Which of your paintings was the most challenging for you? What made it so difficult?
My diploma project in graduate school, 10 years ago. It was a 6 foot egg shaped panel. The figure inside was back-lit, with flexed knees foreshortened, two feet wide. It was an anatomical and spacial challenge that was invigorating and intimidating.
What about that media attracted you?
First the smell of the linseed oil and paint. Second, the mess. Then once I got my hands into it, the texture and versatility.
How have you seen your own work change since you began?
My work is still evolving and will continue if I do my job right. Since I started, my subject matter has remained very much the same, but the style, application, and compositions has shifted. I have zoomed into the figure and cropped more. Colors are getting brighter, paint thicker, and more abstract areas are being explored as the filters get more pronounced.
What do you want to be doing in four years? What are you doing to make sure that comes true?
i want to paint much bigger. I’m searching for that perfect subject.