Flesh perspective: Alexa Meade's growing body of work is work of the body

A recent Vassar graduate, 23-year-old Alexa Meade is taking the art world by storm using the human body as a canvas.
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Slender, freckled, auburn-haired Alexa Meade is in her parents' basement in Chevy Chase. It's 7:30 a.m. Tuesday. She resists the temptation to Google herself.

Instead, she sets an empty Grand Marnier jug between a mirror and an inclined plate of glass, traces the bottle and its reflection on the glass with black paint, then traces the reflection of the paint itself. Next, she sprinkles her expired thyroid medication into a can of Betty Crocker frosting, stirs it and scoops the mix into the pill bottle.

She doesn't quite call it art. It's an experiment, she says, to limber her brain, which has been consumed recently by her shotgun art career. The media inquiries, the hundreds of sales requests, the invitations from random galleries -- it's a bit much for a 23-year-old who only six months ago decided to be a full-time professional artist. This moment is playtime.

"I'm not out to make a masterpiece right now," she says as her iPod shuffles through indie rock. "I feel like anything you do gets you moving, inspires you in some way. It's also kind of satisfying playing with frosting."

Footsteps on the stairs. Her father, Phil, pokes his head in. "Off to work," he says.

"Bye, Pops," she says.

Two weeks ago she was a political science grad living at home, painting her way through her first year after college. She is still that. Except now she has a deal to exhibit at the Saatchi Gallery in London, an offer to collaborate on a music video for a major record label, and hundreds of curious e-mails from people who want the story on Alexa Meade and how she turns people into paintings.

Her current medium is acrylic on flesh. She paints on people's skin and clothes until they look like they belong in a frame. And voilĂ : The masses are captivated, opportunity comes knocking. Even as she putters in the basement, Alexa Meade may be standing on the brink of an inventive career, or the brink of oblivion.

* * *

Internet memes are most virulent when they blow people's minds, and Meade's "Living Paintings" seem to have done that. For two weeks she has been linked, blogged, page-viewed, tweeted, Digged, thumbs-upped, CNN'd, OMG'd and lavished with parades of exclamation points by anonymous commenters -- the plebeian, virtual equivalent of a good opening at MoMA, minus the bona fides.

"A portrait is something that's been with us for 3,000 years -- that's not an easy genre to move forward," says Magdalena Sawon, owner of Postmasters Gallery in New York, who has invited Meade to be part of an upcoming exhibit. "I'm more interested in the end result than just the strategy, and she has the ability to convey a powerful image. [Her work] exploded virally on the Internet, and my wish, to some degree, is to bring it back into the focus of the fine arts world. This is a valid and very interesting contribution to the portrait genre."

Meade uses a brush. She paints skin on skin, lips on lips and eyebrows on eyebrows, and the insides of nostrils, using her own mixture of nontoxic paints and unspecified ingredients. Her subjects must sit still for multiple hours as she follows the natural contours of their faces, varying brushstroke and color to exhume their inner essence. When she's done, they appear banished to two-dimensionality, yet they also seem fuller, more dynamic. She then sets her subjects in an installation, or photographs them. There are no touch-ups or special effects beyond acrylic on flesh and the initial complacency of the observer.

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