Alyssa Monks’ solo exhibition opened last Thursday night at New York’s DFN Gallery to grinning crowds, and it’s a show worth smiling over — her new paintings are stunning. A continuation of the artist’s bather series (contemporary versions of the image of a bathing female nude), Monk’s subjects confront the viewer head-on; she has taken the bather and placed her behind a filter of water, walls of glass and mosaic-like shower doors, distorting the image and collecting drops of water and steam. The resulting works — abstracted, in spite of their photo-like qualities — gracefully explore the tension between reality and invention.
Flavorwire: Your current show is a series of female figures bathing, what made you chose this subject?
Alyssa Monks: I’ve always painted women. It started with the self-portraits and then I took a detour to paint family members. And in a way, the paintings of family are self-portraits of myself without me in them. In this series, my sister-in-law was the model for Steamed and Smirk; a very close friend of mine is Laughing Girl and Laugh. I never use models that I don’t know or have a relationship with. When I am painting someone I am having a conversation with them. If I don’t know them, they become more of an object, less of an active subject. For this series it was important that these women were active subjects. There is this long tradition of bathers as coy and unaware — there is a voyeurism in it [the tradition]. Degas’s bathers are these blank-slated women, it was important to me that these were real women. They are not just objects of the male gaze.
FW: You work from photographs, tell me about your process.
AM: I paint directly from the photo, but there is a lot of invention even though I have a reference. There’s no way to make it exactly like a photograph. I’m not interested in that and I’ve never been a photo-realist. Part of the challenge is to figure out what to use from the photo and what to invent.
Image: Alyssa Monks, Laughing Girl
FW: Much of your work features a water theme. Why are you so drawn to water?
AM: The whole water thing kind of found me, and I evolved into it. I have a memory of painting when I was 14 or 15 years old. I was looking through references for what I wanted to paint next. I found an image of water, but it was too hard to paint. So, it was a personal milestone to paint water. I came back to it [painting water] 5 or 6 years ago and I loved the way it played with the flesh — how it was destructive to the form and added this other level of challenge.
There are all these ways that water can act on the body. I liked how it added distortion and abstraction, how it could create new texture. It allowed me to use the paint in a more lose, fresh way. The danger with working from a photograph is to flatten things and be really tight; with the water you can’t paint that way. You have to invent water out of paint.
FW: Tell me about the choice to place a barrier between the viewer and the subject?
AM: I was using water as a filter, and it made me wonder what other filters I could come up with. First I covered myself with Vaseline and water. Then I used a vinyl shower curtain, and the shower doors were next. Some of the shower doors create this mosaic effect and some of them are flat; it seemed like the next natural evolution.
Creating a filter really spoke to me as a way to draw the viewer in. Putting a barrier in between the viewer and the subject invites the viewer to work a little harder. The glass also a reference to the windowpane that traditionally leads into another world. It talks about the surface of the painting itself, speaking directly about the tension between illusion and abstraction.
The glass also goes back to this idea of having these women be involved with conversation. They are confident enough to confront the viewers.
Images: Alyssa Monks, Fragment; Laugh; Profile
FW: Did it take time to figure out how to paint flesh in this distorted way?
AM: Absolutely. In every painting I try to set it up a new challenge. That keeps it interesting for me. It also keeps me humble, keeps me learning. With Steamed I hadn’t done anything on that scale yet. I painted a little bit of it and I said, “I can’t do this,” but then I did. (Laughs) Every shower is a new challenge.
FW: What’s next?
AM: I have a few more in this series. I am really excited by the doors: The steam, the water droplets, the doors themselves, and sometimes the skin pressing against the door. They have the most levels of filters.
I’ll continue with the tension of tightness and realness, abstraction and distortion. We’ll see where that takes me. I’ve been thinking about using materials in the water to change the texture of the water itself. Recently I put flour into a bathtub full of water; I thought of filling a bath with wine. I’m always thinking of ways of affecting the skin — new ways to disintegrate the form.
FW: Do you think you’ll ever get bored of water?
AM: No, actually, never. I feel like the water has become the perfect translation of the medium. Painting someone dry is boring for me.
Title image: Alyssa Monks, Smirk