Alexa Meade’s Still Lifes

Film theorist Andre Bazin saw the age-old pursuit of the plastic arts to replicate as realistically as possible the human image as akin to the ancient Egyptian practice of embalming the dead:

“The religion of ancient Egypt,” he writes, “aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. … To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly … in the hold of life”.

I wonder what he would say of Alexa Meade – the contemporary artist who, painting on humans, turns living flesh to acrylic-encased sculptures?


This man, made to look like a painting, was photographed as he was walking around in public. It would be pretty cool to see him moving about on the train; but it would also be a little uncanny, I think, to such see a painting come to life. Here is the human body is made unfamiliar with two-dimensionality and paint, familiar brushstrokes – the conventional signifiers of a two-dimensional painting – made unfamiliar with three-dimensionality and motion.

Natura Morta
by Alexa Meade 2009
Live installation: Acrylic on objects, walls, and flesh

Entitled “Natura Morta”, or “Still Life”, this painting inspired the following narrative by an amazed blogger:

The hotel room begins to devour her every muffled breath before she can even force it from the hollow in her chest. Uneven beats fill that vacant cavity with untiring angst, but her mind is disconnected. Thoughts rising like hot air loom along the musty ceiling where mold clings. She feels the flesh, which binds her in detached hatred, still moist from his body. She watches, as his imprint on the coarse sheets seems to dig deeper into the mattress, though the slammed door failed to carry even the softest breezes into the room with his exit. He was just another and yet she is still the same. It’s tiresome how time comes to reveal the same revelation over and over in new light. She wants to reach over to the lamp and illuminate her feet resting on the dingy carpet but her arms weigh in defiance. She wishes those feet could carry her out into the daylight and stirring air, where she might find something worth living for.

(The blogger’s full commentary, which links this painting to Saussure, can be found here.)

It seems that, rather than being a defence against death, a guarantee of immortality, here painting and sculpture coalesce to signify death itself – the flat lifelessness of the human soul.

To this Bazin might say that photography, as a medium of mechanical reproduction that “satisf[ies], once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism”, has freed painting up to pursue goals other than physical realism – such as, in the case of the above artwork, emotional realism. But what would he say to the fact that it is precisely in a photograph that Meade’s three-dimensional human model is flattened into an image of a painting? Here the camera has apparently forsaken its bid for physical realism, and is instead used to make real objects look less realistic, to give the living human, who in a live installation can still be observed to blink and fidget, the precise appearance of still, flat deadness.


For this photograph Alexa Meade painted directly on Sheila Vand’s body which was then submerged in milk mixed with paint. While in a live installation one would still be able to see a certain three-dimensionality, especially in the motion of the pool of swirling paint and milk, this photographed portrait depicts only stillness. As living human is turned into the still deadness of a painting, the traditional realistic aim of both painting and photography is subverted.

If at the heart of the realistic tradition lies the desire for immortality, then from a similar psychoanalytic standpoint, does Meade’s work with its deliberate reduction of photographic realism reflect the opposite – that is, a desire for death?

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 22.20.25

I don’t think so. For the model, after the performance, eventually cracks open her acrylic coffin and, like a butterfly from its cocoon, steps out again into the free air and blue skies, breath and movement liberated once more. She looks and feels like the same person, yet if I were her I’m sure I’d be changed, however subtly, by the experience. Almost as if she’d gone through an ancient ritual of death and rebirth, the model, having washed the last vestiges of paint from her body, can now proceed to claim her prize: a photograph of herself; memorialising, for eternity, that little moment in her life in which she tasted death, and came out immortal.

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Author: ckye

Celine Low, a.k.a. Ckye, is a writer and creative writing tutor with an Honours degree in English Literature. Her fictional works have been published by The Bride of Chaos and Marshall Cavendish, and she posts regularly on Twitter and Instagram on an eternal quest to capture both beauty and sublimity through her words. An academic at heart, she also enjoys reading and writing research papers, as she finds a rather masochistic pleasure in gnawing on the musings of wise old philosophers or critics. She aims to travel the world one day, and hopes that the Northern Lights look as good as they do in Google wallpapers.

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