Alyssa Monks – The Illusion of Reality

© Alyssa Monks

ABOUT Alyssa

Alyssa Monks earned her B.A. from Boston College and she studied painting at Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence. She went on to complete her M.F.A at the New York Academy of Art, Graduate School of Figurative Art in 2001. She teaches and lectures at universities and institution nation wide, and is an adjunct professor at the New York Academy of Art. Monks’s paintings have been the subject of numerous solo and group exhibitions including “Intimacy” at the Kunst Museum in Ahlen, Germany and “Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820-2009” at the National Academy Museum of Fine Arts, New York. Her work is represented in public and private collections, including the Savannah College of Arts, the Somerset Art Association and the collections of Howard Tullman, Danielle Steele and Eric Fischl. Alyssa has been awarded the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant for Painting three times and is a member of the New York Academy of Art’s Board of Trustees. She is currently represented by Forum Gallery in New York City. Alyssa currently lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.




Hi Alyssa! What got you interested in painting?

I began painting at about 8 years old after my art teacher at school noticed I was “staying in the lines” pretty well. She recommended I go to a painting class. I went to the Ridgewood Art Barn with my brother. It was an adult class. I remember how good the linseed oil smelled and how much I loved being there. It really clicked with me and I never stopped.

Your paintings are really realistic, with an impressive level of detail. What drew you to this style and how did you refine your technique during the years?

I always loved the idea of creating a world I could really feel comfortable and connected to, so that meant it had to be convincing. I liked the challenge of making an illusionistic space with volumetric forms. Something about the problem solving of this drew me in. However, I also fell in love with the paint itself, the mysteriousness of it and the expressive qualities of it. I’ve challenged myself to allow both realistic detail and expressive, nearly abstract, paint strokes to co-exist in the same work. From a distance the work feels tight. But as you get closer, you see how the paint is doing it’s own thing to create a surface that expresses a deeper “realism” than just an illusionistic image can do.

How long does it take you to complete a painting?

The shortest painting I did took a few hours. The longest took 3 years. Usually it’s about a month. Depends on size and whether or not I change my mind a thousand times.


“I’ve challenged myself to allow both realistic detail and expressive, nearly abstract, paint strokes to co-exist in the same work.”

Alyssa © Stephen Churchill Downes

How do you choose your subjects?

I choose by curiosity mainly. I dream up some situation, a context or room or moment, and then add different “filters” to peak my curiosity. When I set it up and see it, if I get a little nauseous and excited, I think it might be a good idea. I choose to paint people I know and love and feel connected to so I can create an empathic experience.

Water is a recurring element in your work… is there a particular reason?

I completed a 10 year water series last year. Mainly l was attracted to the challenge, the mystery, and I was so curious to see what it would look like to paint water in all these different ways. I first started wtih bathtubs, studying how the filter of water changed the color of flesh, how it changed the texture of skin, clothing, hair. Then I painted shower curtains, as another filter to look at the person through. The idea of filters became so interesting to me. This idea of obfuscating the body, the person, to create mystery and possible intrigue. I tried vaseline, glass shower doors, steam, water droplets. I added flour to bathwater to make it more opaque and floating oil on top to create another effect. It was all out of curiosity and fascination. What resulted is perhaps a big metaphor about surrendering to what is, as opposed to struggling against it. The struggle makes you drown. The acceptance gives you the possibility of floating.


It seems that your paintings in the last two years are less realistic than your earlier work, what made you change direction(if our assumption is correct)?

The last two years I’ve been painting portraits and landscapes. The landscapes are more dreamlike and invented, mostly. The portraits are based of people I know and connect to, using some experimental techniques I’m playing with. I’m not sure they are more or less realistic. To me it is all artifice, if something looks like a photograph it just looks like another form of artifice. I define realistic by what feels real. That is a whole other kind of definition. In that sense, the recent work is far more real.

What’s next for you? Are you working on something at the moment?

Yes, I have a solo exhibition at Forum Gallery in March of 2016. I’ve started a new series that is really challenging for me and also very exciting. I’m combining the image of a person with the reflection of a landscape as though in a glass through which you see the figure. Or the reverse.  It is about dissolving the ego, the sense of a separate self – and the person fusing with the landscape, the atmosphere, the earth around it. In this way there is connection, empathy, belonging.

“I choose to paint people I know and love and feel connected to so I can create an empathic experience.”

Alyssa in her studio © Stephen Churchill Downes