In Reverse Trompe L’Oeil, Models Are Both Subject and Painting Surface

In some ways, artist Alexa Meade is a traditional figure painter, replicating the light and shadow that falls on the human body in a naturalistic way. But she works on an unusual canvas: the actual human body. And she takes a classical concept — trompe l’oeil, the art of making a two-dimensional representation look three-dimensional — and turns it on its head. Her aim is to do the opposite, to collapse depth and make her living models into flat pictures.

Meade’s innovative approach to traditional portraiture comes from her interest in transforming the person in front of her. As her model is part of the art, the portrait is both personal, and yet transcendent; he or she “looks like a painting rather than something that occupies space.”

Meade’s work – both live installation and her documentary photography — has been shown at the Saatchi Gallery in London, the Postmaster’s Gallery in New York, and Irvine Contemporary in Washington. Her work became popular through exposure on art blogs and through her own promotion on Flickr and other social media networks, where she now receives commissions.

What began as an obsession with shadows (and painting them onto the surface of grass), has grown into an evolving project exploring representations of the body through paint and the materiality of the medium. Her interested in living surfaces helped her transition to painting directly on people. Meade, 24, whose studio until recently was her parents’ basement, began by begging her family to sit for her. She says her very first model was startled when she started applying paint directly onto his face.

Before a model arrives at her studio, Meade prepares by painting both the background setting and the clothes the model will wear, a process that can take up 40 hours. She spends about six hours painting and photographing the model.

As the artist applies paint to human skin, a personal connection develops. She thinks the physical closeness creates an unusual atmosphere that allows her models, even if they are strangers, to open up: “It’s just outside of people’s experience to be that intimate with someone they don’t know,” said Meade.

Each of Meade’s final photographs is, she says, the end result of a close collaboration between artist and model. Not only is her painting process attuned and flexible to the comfort and input of the model, Meade uses that intimacy to adapt her portrait to fit the model, particularly in her use of shadows and shading. She might shift from a bright palette to more muted, nuanced color as she learns more about the model’s mood.

Will, a friend of and frequent model for Meade, says he thinks of his role as similar to the stoic guards of London Tower, whose expressions never betray emotion — those feelings are relayed instead, perhaps, through the hand of the painter.

Editor’s Note: We incorrectly reported that Meade is 25 years old. She is actually 24.