Most painters commit pigment to canvas, portraying static scenes from a specific viewpoint. When Alexa Meade picks up a brush, it's to paint on people. But unlike body painting found at festivals, Meade's living, breathing compositions are a radical approach to portraiture. By painting her models and their surroundings, the artist subverts reality, tricking the eye into thinking 3D space is actually a 2D painting.
It's an innovative practice that's earned Meade worldwide renown; to date, she's exhibited her work at The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the Grand Palais in Paris, and the United Nations, to name a few. Now, Meade is getting institutional recognition for her unique art-making methods: during the Tribeca Film Festival, she was among the dozens of visionaries honored at the 2017 Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards (TDIA), along with game changers in fields like robotics, environmentalism, and journalism.
Meade got her start as an artist by subverting the expectations her parents had for her. "My parents thought their daughter would have a real job and work in politics and sit at a desk all day. And then I decided I wanted to be an artist, and that was not at all approved. I had to pretend to be looking for a 'real job,' because that would be too disruptive to the family to have someone be doing something so outside of the norm," Meade tells Creators. "When people asked me what I was doing, I'd say, 'Oh I'm interviewing for jobs,' rather than say, 'I'm painting on a pineapple in my parents' basement.' A lot of my early subjects were pieces of fruit."
Fascinated by the properties of light, Meade started by filling in real shadows with black paint. Her practice evolved from there, and now, her models lacquered with a layer of acrylic paint look like portraiture subjects who've somehow escaped their frames.
Through her immersive painted scenes, Meade disrupts expectations of where and how viewers interact with art, but the artist says the juxtaposition isn't always on purpose. "One of my favorite works was an accident. I painted this old man in my parents' basement, and I was going to bring him to an art show I had in Washington, DC, but I couldn't get a ride. So I ended up taking him on the subway," she says. "People started looking at him, as one would, and I just felt myself blushing, thinking, 'This isn't ready for people to be looking at in this context. There's no painted background.'"
"It wasn't exactly how I envisioned it, but I decided that I just needed to embrace that it was part of the process. It's this collision between dimensions: there's this painted man amidst real people on the subway. So I started taking photos of it and I realized that having this disruption in the picture plane, where it's no longer just 3D or 2D, was so compelling," Meade says.
In the intervening years, Meade has learned to embrace disruption as an artistic tool and use it to further her practice. Recent work includes Color of Reality, a film collaboration with movement artists Jon Boogz and Lil Buck that confronts the epidemic of gun violence in America. And for fun, Meade and her boyfriend Chris Hughes have an ongoing side project turning their house in Los Angeles into a rainbow-filled wonderland.
But despite her playful oeuvre, one of the most disruptive aspects of Meade's work is its ability to break down classic portraiture and empower the viewer. "When it comes to normal painting, an artist might sketch a scene on a two dimensional canvas, and when it's done you have a picture from a very specific viewpoint," Meade explains. "In my work, I completely remove the framing and viewpoint, because I'm painting everything in the round. [...] It's no longer under the power of the artist to control the presentation of the painting. It turns it over to the people to be able to express themselves through my paint brush strokes."