Interview: Painting Through the Years with Alyssa Monks.

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Alyssa Monks’s work explores narrative figuration. Currently she is playing with the tension between abstraction and realism in the same work, using different filters to visually distort and disintegrate the body. In this shallow painted space, the subject is pushing against our real space with pulsating vibrations of color that can make a painted body seem to have blood pumping through it. Strokes of thick, succulent paint in delicate color relationships are pushed and pulled into place to imitate glass, steam, water and flesh and create a narrative in the painted surface.

The result of this pushing and pulling of realism is a confrontation of the tension between mortality and vitality. Striving for anatomical and realistic accuracy, it is her intention to convey an arresting vision that compels the viewer to feel their own humanness. It is Monks’s intent to relate visually the contemporary female experience with sensitivity, empathy, and integrity.

Alyssa Monks earned her MFA in painting from the New York Academy of Art, Graduate School of Figurative Art. She additionally studied at Montclair State College, the New School, and Lorenzo de’Medici in Florence. She completed an artist in residency at Fullerton College.

She is Continuing Education Faculty at the New York Academy of Art, where she teaches Flesh Painting and teaches Figure Painting at Montclair State University. Alyssa has been awarded a Grant for Painting from the Elizabeth Greensheilds Foundation three times. Alyssa currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

Daniel: Tell us about yourself, where did you grow up, how was it growing up? Give us your artist CV.

Alyssa: I grew up in a New Jersey suburb, the youngest of eight children. I went to Catholic School through college.

Daniel: Has art always been a passion of yours or is it something that you’ve developed through the years?

Alyssa: I was first exposed to painting in Kindergarten when I began classes outside of school at the suggestion of my art teacher who noticed I could “stay in the lines”. My mother was fantastic about making sure we all got to our after school classes that were fitting for each of us. I always loved to draw as a past time, and painting was a treat and a further challenge. I continued through high school in classes outside of school and focused on my art classes in school. By this point I set up an easel in my parents basement and was working on large paintings after school and sometimes all night. I began as a double major in fine arts and psychology in college and painting was definitely a big part of my identity by then.

Daniel: When did all of this begin for you?

Alyssa: After college I went directly to the New York Academy of Art in downtown Manhattan. In addition to studying in Florence and in NYC at the New School, Montclair State College, and various private lessons throughout high school in college.

Daniel: Where did you learn how to draw and manipulate photography into oil on canvas?

Alyssa: I learned to draw by practicing and copying photographs, magazine ads, and drawing anyone who would sit for me including our pets as I was growing up. In Graduate school is where I really began to understand anatomy and the proportions of the human figure, muscles, tendons, joints, etc. as far as extracting a painted surface out of a photographic reference, I struggled with that all along, mostly on my own as there is no formal class to learn that. What I think is most important though, is studying from life so that one is aware of the lies the photograph tells in terms of color, shadow and distortion among other things. There is a lot of invention and memory in my process, and less of a desire to copy a photograph.

Daniel: What inspires you to make a painting?

Alyssa: Ultimately I want these paintings to exist. I get an idea and I just want to see what it would look like really big and made of paint. I want to see if I can do it and what surprises will happen along the way and figure out how to deal with them. There are small moments in the studio where I see something I didn’t know could happen and those little moments are what ultimately drive me.

Daniel: Do you remember your first oil on canvas painting?

Alyssa: I was pretty young when I started, so those first paintings were your typical horse head or still life, signed with a big sharpie marker across the front. Beyond those, I’d say my first real, large scale painting that actually makes sense with the whole of the rest of my work might have been when I was 16. it was a self-portrait called “girl in the box,” and it was done from the mirror, nude, seated, one hand in my hair leaning my elbow on my knee and looking out at the viewer at a ¾ view, naked parts conveniently hidden. I painted that eye so many times. It had many drawing problems, but it was a painting I first felt a commitment to finishing well and worked very long on it.

Daniel: Do you remember your first painting sale?

Alyssa: The “girl in the box” was also my first sale. I think the frame might have been most of the sale price.

Daniel: You’ve featured lots of female figures bathing, what made you choose this subject?

Alyssa: Its been an organic evolution that has brought me to my current subject matter. I’ve always been attracted to painting the female nude, and often used my own body to avoid model fees and anyone else’s self-consciousness about being nude in a painting. I just loved the fleshiness and the forms. Eventually I realized I needed to do more than this and wanted a context for my nudes. I’d always been fascinated with water. Nearly drown a few times jumping into pools as a child. I loved the feeling of it and I loved looking at it. I discovered one day in the bathtub how beautifully strange the body looked underwater and knew I needed to attempt this. That was 6 years ago. Since then I’ve added different filters to further obfuscate and distort the form, both destroying and enhancing the flesh, I hope.

Daniel: Take us through the creative process from when you buy the canvas, to the moment it’s completed.

Alyssa: The process starts long before the canvas is stretched and primed, actually. There is the question of what will be painted on that canvas and it dictates the format and size of the canvas, so that must be determined before there is any canvas at all. I take thousands and thousands of photographs trying to get every possible frame to choose a composition to base the painting on. The photo session requires things like a big bathtub, super bright photo lights, different substances I put in the water depending on the experiment, a model, nose-plug, earplugs, sometimes tripod, and camera. Once I get all the options I think I can sort through, I begin weeding out the obvious unusable ones and slowly get down to about 300 possibilities. From there I experiment with sizes, cropping, adjusting color and printing over and over until I feel I have something worth exploring in paint. the composition is then loosely drawn in on the canvas and covered in a golden wash. When its dry I mix big piles of paint on a glass palette according to what I will be using. From there I begin to apply the paint and push it around creating a thick surface with as few strokes as possible to create the effect of the water, flesh, hair, or whatever the subject. I don’t like the look of fussing in my work, and I want the color and paint to be fresh and apparent. So I carefully choose my strokes and try to leave them alone. When I have the surface completely covered I stare at it for awhile and move things, change things, lighten/darken/brighten/dull….aside from the photograph which at this point is useless anyway. There is a dialogue that is occurring between my eyes and memory and what I see on the canvas and trying to find something new in between. It’s the best part of the painting process. When I feel its satisfying to me, I stop.

Daniel: Who are your greatest influences?

Alyssa: Eric Fischl, Alex Kanevsky, Vincent Desiderio, Jenny Saville, Egon Schiele, Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Jackson Pollock, Lucian Freud, Gustav Klimt, Frank Auerbach, Nan Goldin, Philip Lorca Dicorcia, Julie Heffernan.

Daniel: How often do you begin a new painting, and how long is the process of completing one?

Alyssa: This is the most popular question I get. Why do you ask? I think the most accurate answer is that the paintings I just finished took 32 years to make. Other than that I have no idea how to figure out the exact hours, weeks, months when so many different things go into the projects and they are 10 happening at once.

Daniel: What’s on the horizon for Alyssa Monks?

Alyssa: I’m working on a solo show for David Klein Gallery in October. Currently I’m participating in Art Chicago with the same gallery. The Noyes Museum in NJ will be hosting me and another artist from DFN gallery Tom Birkner in a dual show this summer. I plan to be in the San Francisco Art fair and possibly a group show at Scott White Gallery in San Diego.

Daniel: I am sure that our readers are aspire to become as great of an artist as you are. Care to share with us an inspirational tip for our readers?

Alyssa: Well, the one tip I can share is that no matter what the issue is or problem or situation, the answer is probably in the studio. So skip any frustration and feeling down or desperate. Just make more work. Make it better and stronger than the last. Keep making work. Make work that you believe should exist about things you care about and know about. Make work that is sincere and that you genuinely think is important. Make work that challenges you and keeps you humble. Seek the criticism of others and learn from it, but do not make work to please your audience primarily. Of course, pleasing them is a good thing once you (your first audience) is pleased. Be generous always, and appreciate everything you have. No, it isn’t easy. Finish everything you start.

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