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Mind-warping photos turn subjects into 2-D paintings

By Dbierend, Wired
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
Alexa Meade covers her subjects, and their environments, in thick strokes of paint until they resemble actual paintings. Click through the gallery to see some of her unreal artwork.
Alexa Meade covers her subjects, and their environments, in thick strokes of paint until they resemble actual paintings. Click through the gallery to see some of her unreal artwork.
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Alexa Meade
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Alexa Meade
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alexa Meade creates mind-warping photos by covering her subjects in thick strokes of paint
  • Inspired by the political spin machine, she takes shadows and paints them on themselves
  • The artist tries to make the viewer think about what is beneath the surface
  • Meade's experiments with visual riddles went viral

(Wired) -- Alexa Meade combines painting, photography and patience to manipulate viewers' perceptions and create visual riddles by meticulously covering her subjects, and their environments, in thick strokes of paint until they resemble actual paintings.

The idea came to her following a stint in politics after college, and deciding to channel the fakery and duplicity common to the political realm into something creative.

"I really got to view the political spin machine up close," Meade says. "Everything before it reaches you has in some way been processed and repackaged to present a story that is fitting to somebody else's agenda. And I kind of saw this idea of taking shadows and painting them on top of themselves, taking people and painting them on top of themselves, as repackaging the same base information and turning it into something that appears completely new on the surface. But deep down is the same person; it's the same message, but with my veneer of reinterpretation on top of it."

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Using the colors and values of her subjects as a guide, Meade paints them, deftly overwriting the natural visual cues that give them their depth and form. The striking result is like someone wearing a costume of themselves.

She's played with several variations on the theme, blending her subjects into street art, bathtubs full of milk, interactive installations, even photographing one's travels on the DC subway system after being painted. It's an effective optical illusion that often creates great results, but Meade--who isn't a trained painter--is motivated less by representing life than by getting people to question what they're seeing.

Everything before it reaches you has in some way been processed and repackaged to present a story that is fitting to somebody else's agenda.
Alexa Meade, Artist

"There are a lot of things in this world that we take as a complete given," she says, "But we don't necessarily stop to take that step to think, 'OK, well what is actually underlying all of this?'"

This isn't an entirely new concept. Boo Ritson painted her subjects in a similar fashion in the middle of the last decade, albeit in a flatter style and with a reduced color palette. Something about Meade's approach resonated with viewers, though, and her experiments went viral.

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Beyond broadly representing their subjects, Meade's pictures reflect her excitement about articulating ideas. She's more likely to invoke Borges or Plato than Rembrandt or Duchamp when discussing her work.

Meade found her artistic path shortly after earning her degree in political science and working on Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. She quickly found herself intrigued by shadows and what they represent. Painting over the shadows cast by people, objects, fences on blades of grass, eventually she was painting more than just the shadows and seeing an allegory in painting reality on itself.

"I wanted to find a way to capture them and give this intangible absence of shape form and color — not all the shadows I paint are black. They're all sorts of different colors. So that evolved into painting shadows onto people, and all of a sudden I was turning people into paintings without even realizing it."

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Guys like this could kill Google Glass before it ever gets off the ground

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