Alexa Meade first started painting on people instead of on canvas almost 15 years ago. While so much art tricks the brain into understanding flat images as three dimensional, Meade does the opposite. She applies paint directly to her subject, whether that’s a human being or breakfast leftovers, making three-dimensional objects look like two-dimensional painted images.
Meade’s work focuses on the contrasts between light and shadow. She highlights the details that the human eye glosses over in order to perceive the world effectively; when we look at someone’s face, we tend to take in its totality instead of picking out how shadows play across the contours of their face, for example. “There’s also reflected light,” Meade explains, “like on the edge of the nostril, where it should be dark, it’s actually bouncing light from your upper lip.”
Applying paint to accentuate those details is what makes Meade’s work look like a moving 2D painted portrait instead of a human wearing body paint. “There would have been other ways to achieve a similar effect, say with Photoshop,” she says, “but that wouldn’t have involved me actually using my hands to do it.”
Thinking with her hands is important to Meade’s process; she lets her brush take over without too much interference from her brain. “If I try and map out how it’s going to be, it’s always less interesting and exciting than just letting it flow out of me.”
"Bold Enough to Wait" by Alexa Meade
Meade doesn’t yet have a title for her style; during our conversation we settled on calling it “the thing she does.” The original concept has grown to take many different forms since she first started investigating it in 2008. Meade sees living painting portraiture as the fine art side of her practice. “Then there are the things I create that are just fun, like giant painted installation spaces.”
In Wonderland Dreams, a 26,000-square-foot exhibition open now in New York City, visitors can interact with the space, costumes, and props — every inch hand-painted in Meade’s favorite color, rainbow — to fall down the rabbit hole of their own imaginations. (And yes, there’s an on-theme deck of cards waiting for you at the end of the experience.)
“I think there’s something really beautiful about empowering people to see themselves as a work of art and create their own composition,” Meade says. “Each person changes the painted space through their participation.”
Meade sees her work as more serious than bodypainting, more profound than a selfie museum. She has created award-winning political pieces in her trademark style. But she’s also fed up with the idea that all art needs to make a statement. “Why do you always need to have some serious justification just to have fun with something?” she asks.
Play is an important driver for Meade. Many of the ideas installed at Wonderland Dreams were workshopped at Meade’s funhouse, which is what she calls the 800-square-foot “magical and fun and weird” apartment where she lives in Echo Park, Los Angeles. She designed a toy made out of reversible sequins (long before they went viral) and, under the mentorship of Ron Dubren, the inventor of Tickle Me Elmo, optioned it to Hasbro. The spirit of play means Meade is constantly experimenting, working on new units of exploration, knowing that many of her efforts may never see the light of day.
Recently, she has been playing with her decidedly analog style in the world of cutting-edge technology. “Paint is one of the oldest technologies,” Meade says. “It is colored mud smeared on a surface to create imagery.” As an artist-in-residence, she has collaborated with space-time researchers at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and worked with the Google team developing Light Field technology. NFTs of her artwork have been sold at Sotheby’s and orbited the Earth on a SpaceX rocket. “I definitely embrace technology, and am fascinated and inspired by it,” she says. “But when you’re actually looking at my tangible artwork, there is something really refreshing about seeing what you’re seeing and knowing that it is unmediated. It’s colored mud on the surface that does this magical transformative thing, without any smoke and mirrors.”
Words by Chloe Olewitz
Photo courtesy of Alexa Meade