From a distance, Alyssa Monks’ large-scale images look like photographs. Get closer and it’s soon clear that those shimmering surfaces, wisps of hair, and luminous skin are created by brushstrokes and paint, which is why the Brooklyn-based artist draws a distinction between his work and the photorealism.

“Photorealism is tedious,” she explained in an email interview. “It’s detail-focused, flat-surfaced, and mimics a camera as closely as possible, intentionally removing the artist’s hand altogether.

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  • Image courtesy of Alyssa Monks and Ava Feldman
  • BAIT Alyssa Monks explores “the male gaze” in this 2010 painting.

“My goal is to do the opposite, ergo, my work isn’t actually ‘photorealism,'” said Monks, whose work is on display at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art in a retrospective titled Be Perfectly Still.

Instead, she worked very hard to create a painterly surface, wild and full of happy accidents. Yes, she works from photographs. Water is often part of his images. Approach the surfaces of his paintings and you will see the work of a masterfully talented painter who understands light and reflection in an astonishing way.

She sometimes mixes flour, oil, and other things into the water she immerses her subjects in, which completely changes the surface in unusual ways, leading to new challenges in depicting that surface. The results are remarkable.

“This selection of paintings touches on all the experiments I’ve had with water over the years,” she explained. “I loved trying new ways to create an image so that it would affect how I would paint it. I love this translation process, from flat image to painted surface and all the choices along the way.

“A photorealist copies a photograph and changes nothing, edits nothing, subtracts nothing. That was the opposite of what interested me,” she said. “Experimenting with different elements and filters allowed me to think more about the paint and how it behaves (and misbehaves) as the images became more abstract and sensual.”

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BE PERFECTLY STILL "Do not struggle in the face of uncontrollable and painful circumstances" is the center of this 2021 painting. - IMAGE COURTESY OF ALYSSA MONKS AND FORUM GALLERY, NEW YORK, NY

  • Image courtesy of Alyssa Monks and Forum Gallery, New York, NY
  • BE PERFECTLY STILL “Not struggling in the face of uncontrollable and painful circumstances” is the focus of this 2021 chart.

Photorealist painters often favor inanimate objects – architecture, machines, toys. Few attempt figurative subjects. Why are monks attracted to (mostly) female faces and shapes?

“I paint what I know. I am a woman, so I paint mostly women.”

Where do his titles come from?

Bait talks a bit about the male gaze,” she explained. “For me, the painting looked like a young, pretty girl, seducing the viewer at first, drawing them in. And there’s something hiding in the water, something in her hair, her hand, or maybe not. So like a bait, it pulls you into something that you don’t yet know is actually quite dark.

Be perfectly still It’s about not struggling in the face of uncontrollable and painful circumstances,” she continued. because everything is clearly not under control.

Vaseline II is titled Vaseline II because I made a table called Vaseline, and after my experimentation with Vaseline, which I loved working with at the time, I didn’t want people to confuse the substance with something else. But maybe I did too.

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VASELINE II In this 2007 painting, Monks covered herself in Vaseline and painted from a photograph, although she does not consider it a self-portrait.  - IMAGE COURTESY OF ALYSSA MONKS AND ROBERTA AND STYART STRAUS

  • Image courtesy of Alyssa Monks, Roberta and Styart Straus
  • Vaseline II In this 2007 painting, Monks covered herself in Vaseline and painted from a photo, though she doesn’t consider it a self-portrait.

Charade points to all the bait and switch of artistic creation in general. As Picasso said, and I misquote, but “art is a lie through which the truth is told”. Plus, she looks like she’s drowning, in pain, or gasping for air, but only because it’s a painting. A photograph would trigger much less alarm because we know that it is a fraction of a second. A painting looks longer and more sustained. He feels frozen in time.”

Monks explained a major turning point in her art and her life during a TED talk in 2015 when she revealed what it was like to lose her mother to cancer a few years earlier. Deeply moving, the speech expressed what a transformative experience it was.

“Witnessing the decline and death of my mother really broke me and made me realize that we (I) have much less control over anything than I realize. And there was a whole world of incredible interactions, inspirations, connections, moments that we (I) can make myself available for when I lower the controls and let it all in.

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CHARADE Is the model drowning in this 2010 painting?  Monks says that only seems to be the case because "a painting seems longer and more sustained - it seems frozen in time." - IMAGE COURTESY OF ALYSSA MONKS AND ANN M. WILLIAMS AND FRANK M. EDWARDS

  • Image courtesy of Alyssa Monks, Ann M. Williams and Frank M. Edwards
  • CHARADE Is the model drowning in this painting of 2010? Monks says this only seems so because “a painting seems longer and more sustained – it seems frozen in time”.

“In my head, I stopped painting. And then I started again with all that in mind. Eventually I integrated the two spirits – I like to call them Apollonian and Dionysian – the first being systematic, linear, logical and predictable; the latter being intuitive, emotional, abstract, unpredictable, spontaneous, and non-linear. I felt no need to paint what a camera or eye saw as “reality”. Instead of that, I was curious to create a world that expressed a psychic reality.”

Don’t miss seeing these paintings up close and in person, they are deeply touching.

“What you see is a woman trying to tell her story but never really showing up,” Monks said. “The tension is who the world wanted her to be versus who she is, and she doesn’t yet know exactly who that is. She dares in each painting to reveal herself a little more and lift a veil of obscuration for In other words, the work is autobiographical, pages of a diary without words, without knowing what is acceptable to say.

“And these 13 pieces are just a small sample of the approximately 300 works that have been made over the past 20 years.” Δ

Contact senior writer Glen Starkey at [email protected]