Alyssa Monks captures the energy and anxiety of being in paint

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. – As artist Alyssa Monks and curator Emma Saperstein stood together outside the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (SLOMA) waiting to speak during the member’s preview for Alyssa Monks: Be Perfectly Still, a retrospective, they radiated the easy camaraderie of good friends. Saperstein was just 16 when she first contacted Monks after seeing his work online and being captivated by what she saw. “It resonated with me personally,” Saperstein recalled, “and I’ve followed his work and stayed in touch for over ten years now.”

Appointed SLOMA’s chief curator in 2021, Saperstein drew on her deep knowledge of Monks’ work and mounted an exhibition that primarily showcases the artist’s signature subjects: paintings that disrupt and veil the nude female figure with water droplets, Vaseline, shower curtains, glass and mirrors. Watching the audience’s response to the opening of the exhibition – where she counted seven people in tears – validated Saperstein’s own confidence in Monks’ ability to expressively render human vulnerability.

Alyssa Monks, “Skin” (2006), oil on linen, 42 x 56 inches (courtesy the artist)

SLOMA’s 13 works are exhibited in a single room, the 1300 square foot gray wing. The first (“Skin” and “Immersion”) date from 2006, and the most recent, “It’s All Under Control”, from 2021. A 2001 graduate of the New York Academy of Art, Monks is a skilled realist who managed to both embrace and exceed the possibilities of hyperrealism. His art is energized by the paradoxes and tensions generated by his strange hybridization of refined and abstract visual elements. Her paintings, in which she often appears, have a kind of anxious and revealing glamour.

Painter Betsy Eby – a close friend who also posed for Monks – thought deeply about her friend’s themes, moods and images:

Alyssa’s paintings deal with confronting the disturbing space of vulnerability. There is a loneliness of struggle within the subjects, betraying a lost innocence or an evolution that can only come from being on the other side of anguish. Sometimes by the look, sometimes by the flesh, they seduce. But this seduction comes from behind a veil of water, dew, mist or foliage so in harmony with the silhouette that one has the impression that over time it has become a second skin, a protective barrier. warning, “get close, but not too close.” This veil between the viewer and the subject is an integral part of the look. Alyssa isn’t interested in perfect beauty; instead, through her subjects, she seeks beauty through rupture, the fissure through which light enters.

Alyssa Monks, “It’s All Under Control” (2021), oil on linen, 62 x 90 inches (courtesy the artist)

With the many self-portraits Monks has painted throughout her career, she offers her “self” to viewers while generating a sense of dissolution that moves toward a kind of collective consciousness. As Monks transforms her self-portraits into abstract and obscuring them, the disappearance of detail invites broader interpretations and associations from her viewers who can then more easily identify with her. This breadth also goes against the tendency anyone might have to objectify what they see. When I asked Monks how it felt to see her own retrospective – which includes a number of these self-portraits – she responded with very personal reflections on the self-awareness that drove her work 15 years ago:

I was really surprised at how strangely moving it was to be confronted with my older work. “Skin”, in particular, from 2006, has haunted me since I was there before. I was self-aware in my twenties, after the paintings were done, of the sheer volume of self-portraits. I did it anyway. I felt that self-awareness needed to be blasted and found it important to expose it for some reason. But the truth is, I was so embarrassed. No chart revealed that more than this one, perhaps.

Alyssa Monks and Emma Saperstein (photo John Seed/Hyperallergic)

The last painting presented at SLOMA, “It’s All Under Control”, was exhibited at the end of 2021 in an exhibition of the same name at the Forum Gallery in New York. In response to the set of disruptive events leading up to the show, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the monks set out to explore “human addiction to control and predictability, and how our deepest sufferings stem from our attachment to security, virtue, identity and the logic of cause and effect.The canvas features a nude, spectral figure raising her fingers to her mouth behind the steam and drips of a wooden shower glass. When seen in person, the striking variety of Monks’ brushwork, such as broad strokes of impasto, becomes evident. In terms of storytelling and technique, “Everything is Under Control” is a flexible metaphor for the the artist’s own efforts to come to terms with the world and her attempts to represent its energies in painting.Over time, Monks discovered that painting herself – and others – with an eye on dark form corresponded to a plus great sense of interiority:

As I am in my 40s now and there have been so many life changing moments where I realize that the idea of ​​a ‘me’ is just an idea, that as a being egoic, I don’t really matter and that the whole connection between all of us and our collective consciousness is the most meaningful and interesting idea anyway, I’m becoming less and less identified with my appearance.

Alyssa Monks, “Everything is under control” (2021), detail (photo John Seed/Hyperallergic)

Alyssa Monks: Be Perfectly Still, a retrospective continues at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (1010 Broad Street, San Luis Obispo, CA) through November 13. The exhibition was curated by SLOMA’s chief curator, Emma Saperstein.

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