Alyssa Monks’s paintings have an unsettling power after first glance. Perhaps it’s the water—you’ve been in a pool before, the look of skin’s familiar, and then you stare a little longer and it no longer makes sense, how the body looks underwater, what material it is we’re made from. This isn’t flesh, you think, but it’s not exactly paint, either—which turns out to be what Monks was after in the first place, as we discover below.

Alyssa Monks attended Boston College and the New York Academy of Art, and trained with Vincent Desiderio, John Jacobsmeyer, and Deane Keller. The images in this gallery are from her recent second solo show at DFN Gallery,
New Paintings. All images appear courtesy the artist and DFN Gallery, New York. All images © Alyssa Monks, all rights reserved.

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Let’s start with water: What draws you to it?

The water element in my work began as a way to complicate the figure, distort it and change its color. It also allowed me to play with the space, as water can both magnify or diminish space. It has become a filter and led me to explore other filters with which to complicate the body. Also, water has so many intrinsic symbolic connotations, some very contradictory—which is interesting to me. Water can be just as destructive as it is life giving and refreshing.

Do people look better a little wet?

Wet flesh is beautiful. Showing how water acts on flesh enhances its qualities and allows for more visual description, like medium with paint, or varnish on a painting. Subjecting the body to the element of water shows how it reacts differently than anything else. I’ve also used Vaseline with water to further this effect.

How long have you worked with photographs as a starting point? What sort of constraints do they impose?

Since I was a kid I worked from photographs in practicing drawing and learning to paint. In college I developed my own film and prints in the darkroom, which was a valuable experience. I worked in black and white and then created the color in oil on the canvas. In graduate school I worked almost exclusively from live models and learned to really draw and use color to create volume and space. Once I learned to create illusion in three dimensions, it changed how I used the photograph. One has to realize the limits of photography while embracing its opportunities. Photographs won’t describe shadows correctly or depict surfaces. One has to really work to take good reference photos, and know what to look for in the photograph and what to ignore. This comes from really looking at how things look in life and not being overly dependent on the photo reference. At some point, I put the photo down anyway and just use my eyes and react to the illusion in the painting itself. Copying a photograph is not interesting to me. I like texture too much. So that is something the photo cannot provide.

Your work seems a little more slippery than photorealistic, a little less fixed. Looking back at your work from 2001 and 2002, you seem to be steering this way. Is it deliberate? By accident?

It’s very deliberate. My painting style changed during my education. I went from being totally unselfconscious and very loose in college to tightening up and paying more attention to anatomical accuracy in graduate school. I’ve been interested in marrying loose and aggressive texture with anatomical accuracy to really let the paint show while creating an illusion—just riding that moment of “distillation,” as James Elkins calls it, where paint becomes something else. So to create flesh out of paint, rather than render it.

Who’s inspiring you at the moment?

I’ve been looking a lot at Egon Schiele and his drawing sense, very sensual and expressive. Vincent Desiderio is always fascinating me. His paint looks effortless and complicated at the same time. Of course Jenny Saville’s textures are delicious and fleshy. Rembrandt’s surfaces for their complexity—as well as Vermeer. I also like Alex Kanevsky’s palette and layering of loose paint strokes. And even though its not oil but encaustic, Tony Scherman’s layering is so entrancing.

Certain pictures have more intimacy, others seem to preserve a certain remove, and it’s not just a matter of nudity. Is there a difference when you’re working with subjects you know personally versus strangers?

Absolutely. Between 2000 and 2003, I was using some models and found that there was really no relationship and no intimacy between me and my subject. I found this really pointless and so began using myself and my friends. Using myself has been very convenient and allows me to really do what I want without worrying about anyone’s reactions or self-consciousness. I don’t want to have to sacrifice anything because of someone else’s expectations of how they should be portrayed. Recently I’ve been using my family as subjects, exploring my relationships with them. But honestly, I’m really still searching for the right subject. Someone who is uninhibited and expressive and whom I can have a strong connection with and who, of course, is willing to pose.

What are you working on now?

Presently I’m working on a series of mostly self-portraits, although my mother is in a few, using the different filters I’ve been experimenting with—shower curtains, textured glass, steam, water, Vaseline, etc. I am working on further developing the surface and distorting the image so that one really has to work to make out the image, and must experience all the paint on the surface in order to get there. I want to see how far I can push the image out of clear focus and still have it be convincing and realistic.


Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. His latest book is Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles. More information can be found at More by Rosecrans Baldwin