Women Under Glass: The Paintings of Alyssa Monks
he women are not rising out of the water; they are immersed in it. A baptizing of their own design. We observe them from the other side of the glass, sometimes their bodies pressing against it ~ like butterflies on a specimen slide ~ yet they don’t appear trapped or in any hurry to leave. If anything, we envy them…
INTERVIEW WITH ALYSSA MONKS
Brooklyn, New York ~
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Alyssa, typically when we think of Nudes, especially where there is a tub, shower or water involved, we think vulnerability. Women captured, cornered, in those moments where all protection is cast off, guards are let down.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yet while it’s true that the intimacy you create is among the most heightened we’ve seen in contemporary work today, there is not a hint of exploitation. What we are taking in instead appears to center around sensual self-pleasure. So expertly captured that it feels as if we, the viewers, are the ones experiencing the water play. One can almost feel the tickle of water droplets. I’m very interested in hearing how you entered this series. Did you deliberately set out to create a narrative of women’s empowerment? Or is this more an autobiographical capture?
Alyssa Monks: I appreciate that the intimacy is felt, and that no exploitation is felt as well; those are both very important to me. I’m not sure the works are all defined by self-pleasure, although aside from a few, most of the shower and bath series are about vulnerability, empathy, and connection. I believe that what you’re responding to is the experience of the water. I strive to find a moment where the viewer can see or feel themselves, identify with the subject, connect with others as opposed to the many depictions of women that alienate and make us feel inadequate.
Alyssa Monks: I am always thinking about empowering women in my daily life and the struggles that challenge many women, especially young girls, so maybe it has found its way into the work.
Alyssa Monks: However, I’ve painted these not from a place of reaction or desire to change the world, but rather a place where I can feel at home. I guess that is a place where I don’t have to worry about if and where I have power. For me, painting has always been a place of refuge, connection, and communication. It is always autobiographical, as it is always true to my experience and feelings. I don’t think I can get away from that.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What’s also exceptional is that this heightened intimacy you create between viewer and model, and between model and her own body is pulled off with very little full body nudity. Instead, the focus is on the expressions on the faces, as if to say that even in these thoroughly tactile, sensual explorations, even still, pleasure begins and ends in the brain. And so my obvious next question is what were some of the prompts you gave your models for these sessions?
Alyssa Monks: Some have seen the work as drowning women, suffering women, and you see it as women in a state of self-pleasure. I think that’s interesting. We all bring to the work what we want to see. Art can be a reflection, and the artist is merely a filter or conduit. I am far more interested in the person’s mind than their body, so body parts are best used to express what is in the mind rather than to be objects to fetishize. The faces and expressions are most interesting to me. Finding that moment where one is completely unselfconscious and open, vulnerable and honest.
Alyssa Monks: [quote]I want to somehow express what it’s like to be in their skin. I believe this is what art can do at its best. Maybe this way we will feel less alone in the world, more compassionate to each other, work with, instead of against, one other.[/quote] To capture this in my models, I talked to them, listened to them, did whatever I could think of to make them feel see, cared for, comfortable, at ease, and safe.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: The greatest challenge in successfully painting water?
Alyssa Monks: I think the greatest challenge in painting period is giving up so much attachment to outcome and control. Paint is extremely complicated and versatile. You’d have better luck throwing paint at the canvas and letting it drip down to see where actual things appear and then separating those moments out from the abstract ones and building on them, than trying to draw something and color it in like an illustration. That is just my opinion and my process. Painting water is like painting anything else: take care to notice color relationships, simplify shapes, but keep some structure and integrity in the volumes and be selective with how much detail you include. [quote]Above all, hold the brush loosely, and leave room for surprises. The leaving room for surprises is the hardest part of painting.[/quote]
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In one of your works, you create a very different effect, the final piece becoming almost a canceling out of humanity, Can you tell me about this?
Alyssa Monks: You’re referring to the painting called, Smear, from 2012. This painting is a study I did around the moment my mother’s battle with cancer turned into her graceful surrender. I learned so much from her during this time. Some of it shows up in the paintings from this period and going forward. In this particular moment, I was understanding how it is that only in letting go of our ego, our expectations, our desires, plans, blame, ideologies, etc, can we be truly present with another and witness their journey with compassion and service. So this is a portrait of me putting all my “self stuff” aside in the way I tried to in real life.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In another work, the water is gone, and with it, the pleasure. In fact, the only appearance of water at all is the one tear. With this piece we are concerned for her vulnerability. If you had to define “Vulnerability,” what words would you give it?
Alyssa Monks: This is a painting called, Loss. It’s a piece I had to do to connect to my own grief. I spent so many hours crying for the loss of my mother, so putting on a canvas and honoring that pain felt honest and right. It didn’t feel vulnerable to me actually, which is ironic; it felt cathartic. I could step outside myself and feel compassion for the thirty-four-year-old daughter who lost her mom she loved so much. It was just part of the process of painting and grieving for me. Very natural. Vulnerability is something everyone has, although life teaches us to protect our vulnerabilities. These are details and moments personal to us that if handled carelessly, can cause us deep pain, humiliation, shame, mistrust, fear. Generally we try not to show our vulnerability. But it is in our vulnerability, our messy imperfections, that we can open ourselves to be relateable to others. There is no shame in feeling pain, or having fears, or not knowing everything, or making a mistake. Our vulnerabilities can be the doorway to deep connection and belonging with others.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: And here, she is actually more vulnerable, even as her clothes remain on. Can you tell us about this work?
Alyssa Monks: [quote]Clothing doesn’t hide vulnerability and the lack of it doesn’t reveal it either. These are just constructs and metaphors that are tired and actually more false than anything. I saw a painting once with a crowd of people bustling in the subway, and everyone was wrapped up in winter coats looking freezing. They felt more vulnerable than any idealized, well-proportioned naked lady draped over a bed. If you want to show vulnerability, tell the truth with no manipulation or self-consciousness. Document what is happening, without idealization or glorifying or awful-izing. Vulnerability can be seen in these moments of honesty rather than in metaphors or setting up a construct of what vulnerability should be like.[/quote]
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Does the story change when it’s a man you submerge in water? Does this intimacy have a slightly different flavor?
Alyssa Monks: I haven’t often painted men, but when I have, they are men I really relate to and connect with. It is harder for me to get that empathic feeling, simply because I am not a man and I just know more about what it is like to inhabit a woman’s body and mind, although I’ve been painting a particular man a lot lately, and finding the connection between us to be delicious and wonderful. So we’ll see what happens.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Have you any plans for exploring any of the other three elements: earth, wind or fire?
Alyssa Monks: I’ve begun a series of landscapes that are taking on an abstract element. They are mainly misty, foggy ~ imaginings not based on actual places or photographs. It’s been an experiment of creating earth with paint, which paint seems to want to do very naturally. Water was a means to learning a language for me. it was never really the subject or goal for me. The language allows me to paint many different things with the same sensibility as steam, water drops, and disintegrating forms.
|Born 1977 in New Jersey, Alyssa Monks began oil painting as a child. She studied at The New School in New York and Montclair State University and earned her B.A. from Boston College in 1999. During this time she studied painting at Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence. She went on to earn her M.F.A from the New York Academy of Art, Graduate School of Figurative Art in 2001. She completed an artist in residency at Fullerton College in 2006 and has lectured and taught at universities and institution nationwide.Monks’s paintings have been the subject of numerous solo and group exhibitions including “Intimacy” at the Kunst Museum in Ahlen, Germany, and “Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820-2009” at the National Academy Museum of Fine Arts, New York. Her work is represented in public and private collections, including the Savannah College of Arts, the Somerset Art Association and the collections of Howard Tullman, Danielle Steele and Eric Fischl.
Alyssa has been awarded the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant for Painting three times and is a member of the New York Academy of Art’s Board of Trustees. She is currently represented by David Klein Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan. Alyssa currently lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.
To view more of her work, please visit her website.
My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.
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