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February 21 - March 30, 2006 at Sarah Bain Gallery, Orange County
and March 13 - April 8, 2006 at Fullerton College Art Gallery, Orange County

by Bill Lasarow

"Chrome," 2006, oil
on linen, 72 x 54".

"Still," 2006, oil
on linen, 54 x 72".

"Echo," 2006, oil
on linen, 48 x 64".

"Focus," 2006, oil
on linen, 36 x 48".
A product of the New York Academy of Art’s vigorous training in figurative painting, Alyssa Monks has spent the early segment of her career probing and considering what is compelling and distinctive about, mainly, the female figure. It has served Monks as a vehicle to observe and study light raking across its fleshy surface. Its form, whether collapsed into a ball or stretched like elastic, can make contours we take for granted quite unfamiliar. At times the body is presented as an exotic still life object that inhabits and defines banal domestic spaces. Currently Monks’ figures are self absorbed bathers who allow our gaze to penetrate their nakedness even through the illusory safety of water and lingerie.

If the exhibition at Sarah Bain of these current paintings allows for assessment of the new bathtub and close-up poses, the complementary Fullerton College show tells us where Monks is coming from, and provides more of a feel for the larger path being pursued by this young artist. The academic realism in which these figures are rooted may not much resemble the conceptual inventions encouraged in most university products, but make no mistake, this is dead serious stuff. If the erotic element of her models’ full and semi-nudity serves to charge the viewing space, it is the attentively controlled formal discipline that will sustain your interest beyond the merely gratuitous.

The bather (both in and out of the tub) has been with art for centuries, and Monks’ is a decidedly contemporary version. Whether we are oblivious to the model, as in “Still,” or locked in her returned gaze, as in the companion work “Chrome,” she is self assured. This lack of coy modesty simply removes the female figure from a thoroughly dated past that would appear mannered and exploitative now. The realistic psychological tone serves to establish the formal pyrotechnics. The model in the two aforementioned works sports a bright red slash of smudged lipstick. Between that artifice and that of her undershirt, you are forced to infer that she is made up for a pose rather than caught in the act of bathing, thus ending the sense of realism. The smudge of red is a casual reference to gestural painting, and the lone point of color intensity in these pale images. The woman’s flesh seems deathly pale by contrast; it’s closer in tone and hue to the porcelain tub and tile. The sensuality of the scene doesn’t smolder, it freezes.

And that coolness characterizes Monks’ preferred aesthetic posture. Interior spaces are never cluttered, they always convey precision, if rather casually. “Yellow #2” dispenses with the figures for a change, quoting an abstraction in the composition that, for all its crystalline realism, is positively constructivist. “Naked Light I” positions our viewing angles above the model so that the bright, raking light dramatizes bed sheets that consume the entire background space. Even when Monks depicts the infrequent male figure, alone with his back to us as in “Coming To,” or together with the female, as in “Remote,” the emotional climate remains as chilly as the title suggests.

What keeps the approximately five years of work in sync is that the artist is the constant observer, creating a feeling that you are inhabiting her eyes. Whether a figure or a faucet handle, the payoff is not to puzzle out what is meant by the particular content or allusion of an image, but to deepen our eye contact with the exotic-ordinary. The very newest paintings bring some cropped fragment of the body so close up in the picture plane that you can’t help but try to “see” beyond the edges to make out the larger pose and activity. These also take us beneath the surface of bath water, with the different light and atmosphere that follows. There is something methodical in the way Monks shifts from one species of visual effect to another. At this point in her developing body of work she may be taking on one problem at a time in order to build toward a deeper mastery that will more aptly expose us to the humanity of her figures. For the moment, however, we will be content to be in closer touch with the perceptual process.

No title, 2006, oil
on linen, 42 x 56".

No title, 2006, oil
on linen, 48 x 64".