Alexa Meade (born 1986) is an American installation artist best known for her portraits painted directly onto the human body and inanimate objects in a way that collapses depth and makes her models appear two-dimensional when photographed. What remains is "a photo of a painting of a person, and the real person hidden somewhere underneath." She takes a classical concept — trompe l'oeil, the art of making a two-dimensional representational painting look like a real three-dimensional space — and turns it on its head by doing the opposite, making real life appear to be a painting.
Early life and education
Meade was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 2009, with a bachelor's degree in political science. Initially planning on a path in politics, she interned for congressmen and senators on Capitol Hill, and then worked as a press assistant on Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. She decided to become a professional artist in 2009, teaching herself how to paint while inventing her signature style.
Meade's Living Paintings series is a collection of portraits painted directly onto models, using acrylic paints to make the three-dimensional subjects appear two-dimensional. Only the unpainted parts – typically the hair and eyes – reveal “an optical illusion that blurs the lines of where reality ends and art begins.” The work combines painting, photography, art installations and performance art.
In April 2009, at Vassar College, Meade began to experiment with the idea of putting paint on top of shadows. She then realized while painting the shadows and highlights on the body of her friend Bernie, she could make the three-dimensional space appear two-dimensional. After graduation, she honed her painting technique in her parent's Washington, D.C. basement by practicing painting on inanimate objects like grapefruits, fried eggs and sausage. She has credited her lack of formal art training with allowing her to come up with unique ideas of surfaces she could paint on, since she didn't think of painting as something that necessarily had to be done on a canvas.
Meade first gained public recognition in March 2010, when her living paintings went viral following a short post about her work on Jason Kottke's blog kottke.org. She soon received coverage on CNN and elsewhere. Her website went from having negligible views to an estimated 30,000 page views the next day. Her most famous artwork at the time, "Transit," features an older man Meade painted on in her basement studio, and then photographed riding the Washington, D.C. metro, looking "as if a painting from the National Portrait Gallery has leapt off its wall to go walking through the flesh-and-blood world." Her speech at the 2013 TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, "Your Body is my Canvas," offers a behind the scenes look at her work, and details her career beginnings. She has named installation artist Robert Irwin as an inspiration, citing his biography, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, as an influence on how she thinks about the perception of space.
Meade's art has been exhibited at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Saatchi Gallery in London; Postmaster's Gallery in New York City; Galerie Ivo Kamm in Zurich; the Exploratorium in San Francisco; the Grand Palais as part of Art Paris; and the Pinacothèque de Paris. She is represented by the Ingo Seufert Gallery for Photography in Munich, Germany and the Galerie Sisso in Paris, France.
Milk: What Will You Make of Me?
For the 2012 ALEXA//SHEILA project Milk: What Will You Make of Me? Meade painted on performance artist Sheila Vand, who then lay in a swimming pool filled with milk. As Meade photographed her, the paint on her body slowly bled into the milk, creating constantly shifting designs around Vand's body. ALEXA//SHEILA debuted the Milk series at an exhibit with Galerie Ivo Kamm in Zurich, Switzerland. For the live performances, the artists had a bathtub installed in the middle of the gallery.
Ariana Grande: God Is a Woman
In 2018 Meade painted on singer Ariana Grande for her music video God Is a Woman.Grande’s music video director Dave Meyers had seen Meade and Sheila Vand’s project Milk: What Will You Make of Me? (in which Vand, bodypainted by Meade, lay in a tub of milk, the colors of the paint eventually dispersing and creating patterns throughout the milk) and approached both artists with the idea of bodypainting Grande in a milky pool of paint. The piece shows Grande, nude except for Meade’s paint in shades of lavender, blue and white, floating in a pool as the colors swirl around her. Allure called it "Some of the most gorgeous imagery...striking, empowering." Meade's painted aesthetic set off a beauty and makeup trend, as thousands of people created inspired tribute art.
In 2013, Mini Cooper commissioned Meade to paint a car and live models on a busy intersection in Tokyo. In 2014, she joined the musician Avicii and others as part of the Project Warehouse campaign for Denim & Supply.
As part of the project, she painted large-scale public art installations in Madrid, Santa Monica and Toronto. In September 2015, she was the first artist-in-residence at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. She created a work that involved two painted physicists interacting in real time in front of a three-dimensional chalkboard.
Also in 2015, Meade stated that she is collaborating on a new series of artwork with magician David Blaine. At the Q3 Symposium and Lecture on peace and security in a quantum age held in Sydney, Australia in February 2016, Meade joined quantum physicists and scholars to debate political, ethical and philosophical implications of areas including quantum computing, communication and consciousness.