Alyssa Monks Captures the Energy and Anxiety of Being in Paint


SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. – As an artist, Alyssa Monks and curator Emma Saperstein stood together in front of the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (SLOMA) waiting to speak at the Member’s Preview Alyssa Monks: Be Perfectly Still, a retrospectivethey exuded the carefree camaraderie of good friends. Saperstein was only 16 when she first contacted Monks after seeing her work online and being intrigued by what she saw. “It spoke to me personally,” Saperstein recalls, “and I’ve been following her work and staying in touch for more than ten years.”

Saperstein, who was appointed chief curator of SLOMA in 2021, has used her deep knowledge of Monks’ work to put together an exhibition that primarily showcases the artist’s signature themes: paintings disturbing the nude female figure and water droplets, Vaseline , shower curtains, glass, etc. cover mirrors. Observing the public reaction at the opening of the exhibition – where it counted seven people moved to tears – has confirmed Saperstein’s own confidence in Monks’ ability to express human vulnerability.

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

SLOMA’s 13 works are displayed in a single space, the 1300 square meter Gray Wing. The earliest (“Skin” and “Immersion”) are from 2006, and the most recent, “It’s All Under Control,” is from 2021. A 2001 graduate of the New York Academy of Art, Monks is a skilled realist, dem both embrace and work past the possibilities of hyperrealism. Her art is driven by the paradoxes and tensions created by her eerie hybridization of refined and abstracted visual elements. Her images, in which she often appears, have a kind of anxious and insightful sheen.

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

Alyssa’s paintings are about confronting the unsettling space of vulnerability. There is a loneliness of struggle within the subjects who betray their lost innocence or an evolution that can only come from being on the other side of fear. Sometimes through eye contact, sometimes through flesh, they seduce. But this seduction emerges from behind a veil of water, dew, steam, or leaves so one with the figure that we get the sense that over time it has become a second skin, a protective barrier that warns: ” Come closer, but not too close.” This veil between the viewer and the subject is what makes it so appealing. Alyssa is not interested in a perfected beauty; Instead, she seeks beauty through her subjects through brokenness, the gap through which light enters.

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

In the numerous self-portraits Monks has painted throughout her career, she offers viewers her “self” while creating a sense of dissolution that moves towards a sort of collective consciousness. While Monks transforms her self-portraits through abstraction and concealment, the omission of specifics invites her viewers to broader interpretations and associations, who can then more easily identify with her. This breadth also counteracts the tendency to objectify what is seen. When I asked Monks how it felt to see her own retrospective—which includes a series of these self-portraits—she responded with some very personal thoughts on the confidence that animated her work 15 years ago:

I was really surprised at how strangely emotional it was to be confronted with my older work. 2006’s “Skin” in particular has kind of haunted me ever since I stood before it. I was aware of the sheer volume of self-portraits in my twenties after the paintings were made. I did it anyway. I felt the self esteem should be breached and felt it important to expose for some reason. But the truth is I was so self conscious. No painting betrayed that more than perhaps this one.

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

The most recent painting to be seen at SLOMA, It’s All Under Control, was exhibited at the end of 2021 in the exhibition of the same name at the Forum Gallery in New York. In response to the devastating series of events that preceded the show, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Monks set out to “examine human reliance on control and predictability, and how our deepest suffering emerges from our attachment to safety, virtue, Identity and the logic of cause and effect.” The canvas features a naked, ghostly figure raising her fingers to her mouth from behind the steam and drips of a glass shower door. When viewed in person, the striking variety of Monks’ brushwork, such as broad impasto strokes, becomes apparent. Both narratively and technically, It’s All Under Control is a flexible metaphor for the artist’s own efforts to come to terms with the world and for her attempts to depict her energies in color. Over time, Monks has found that painting yourself – and others – with an eye for concealing shapes corresponds with a greater sense of inwardness:

Now that I’m in my mid 40’s and there have been so many life changing moments where I realized that the idea of ​​a “self” is just an idea, that as a selfish being I don’t really matter and that the overall connection between us all and our collective consciousness is the more sensible and interesting idea anyway, I identify myself less and less with my appearance.

Alyssa Monks, It’s All Under Control (2021), detail (Photo John Seed/Hyperallergic)

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



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