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Her art asks: Can you believe your eyes?

Many artists paint models, but Alexa Meade takes it to a whole new level. She applies paint directly onto living models, then photographs them in a way that tricks you into wondering: Is it a painting? Or is it real?

Many artists paint models, but Alexa Meade takes it to a whole new level. She applies paint directly onto living models, then photographs them in a way that tricks you into wondering: Is it art? Or is it real? For example:

'Jaime'
Testing herself to see how quickly she could work, "I actually painted Jaime on her lunch hour," Meade revealed of this portrait. Her model came back to work late and still covered in paint, she added -- but since Jaime works at an art gallery, her coworkers took it in stride. The next slide reveals what they saw. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
"There's this really interesting interaction between the artist and the model," Alexa Meade said of her work, which was born in a fascination with shadows: "How could I capture the absence of light and give it its own materiality?" She started by painting shadows on grass, but then thought: "What if I painted shadows on the body?

"Wrapping people in paint, I started realizing something was happening here," she added. "It completely transformed into something else." Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
"I wanted to do something monochromatic, but not black-and-white," Meade said. The result looks like a portrait of a man painted in shades of blue, but as the next slide reveals, it's actually a photograph of a live model.

"It's definitely performance art, the model embodying the painting," Meade said of her work. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
Alexa Meade applies paint to a live model at Irvine Contemporary gallery in Washington, D.C. Meade called her work "a combination of things: It's painting, it's photography, it's the performance of the model. What is most easily conveyed is the photo, the representation of the work, but it's really only part of what I do.

"I prefer to actually do it in person so people can experience it in the round," Meade added. Instead of seeing the work from "a fixed viewpoint, they can approach it from any angle. It gives the viewer a chance to enter that world." Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
This self-portrait of Alexa Meade was "the first time I ever painted myself," the artist said. "It made me feel very vulnerable: How do I think about myself? How do I want to portray myself to others?"

To create the portrait, Meade applied paint to herself, then photographed herself. Or as she put it: "It's both a photo of the artist and a painting of the artist, taken by the artist." Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
The painted model sitting for this portrait "is actually curator of the National Portrait Gallery" in Washington, Alexa Meade revealed. Hanging behind her is Meade's "Jaime," which is itself a photograph of a painted model.

"It's definitely a hall of mirrors," Meade said of her work. "It's like looking at reality with your back to reality." Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
This portrait was done for Alexa Meade's very first art show. "It really kind of scared the pants off me, showing for the first time," she recalled. "I have to create my work on the spot; there's no margin for error." Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
"The model is actually my sister," Alexa Meade said of the "Natura Morta" installation at her first show. "She was one of the worst models I've had" and acted "as if it were a huge favor," she added with a laugh. "She's actually sleeping in one of the photos."

When Meade started out in 2009, she had to beg friends and family to model for her. "They have to sit covered in goopy paint for hours at a time; they were not thrilled," she recalled, even though she claims "it's not really that uncomfortable." Today the artist has a list hundreds of names long of people who want to model for her. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
For this self-portrait, Meade used painter's tape to help her apply paint to her right side along a straight vertical line. "Painting myself wasn't tricky," she said. "The tricky part was the photography." To capture herself lined up correctly against the divided background, she used a camera with a timer -- and a lot of trial and error.

Meade takes all the photos of her works as well as painting them, even though, she revealed, "I haven't taken any formal training in painting or photography." Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
"When we look at anything in the world, we bring our own perceptions to it," artist Alexa Meade said. Her work has been called "reverse trompe l'oeil" for the way it plays with the viewer's perception -- as here, where a live model, covered with paint and photographed, appears to be a painting herself.

Meade majored in political science at Vassar and worked a senior Obama press aide, yet "I always wanted to be an artist," she said. "That was my dream." Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
"This was done with one of my favorite models," Meade said of this portrait. The title, she explains, is a pun on the lines painted on both the model and the background. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
Wearing paint that makes her look like an artwork, a model reclines against real grass in this photo. "I wanted to capture the texture of the grass," Meade said. "You can see the weight of the model on the grass." Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
This work was "one of the most fun to do," Alexa Meade said. "We took the model on the D.C. subway. A lot of people were confused, but they didn't want to be rude. They couldn't take their eyes off him." Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
This model, named Victoria, is "tall and strking," Meade said. To magnify her visual impact on a city street, the artist gave her a deliberately over-the-top outfit. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
Posing with model Victoria F. Gaitán, artist Alexa Meade appears to be enveloped in her own portrait. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
Meade's work is all about layers; layers of paint, layers of perception. Here, "I painted all the surfaces white first and just created a painting on top based on my memory" of the model, she explained. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
Alexa Meade photographs a model at Irvine Contemporary studio in Washington, D.C. She said there is "no Photoshop involved" in her work. See the finished effect on the next slide. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
This photo shows Alexa Meade's painted model head-on, but "from any angle, it will look flat," she said of the work. It's as if the model is "being cannibalized," she added. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
"I had a video camera set up on the model," Meade said of this work. The feed captured on the camera appeared on the monitor so that the model could watch himself on TV. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
One of Meade's most recent works. "I just wanted to have the colors supersaturated, overstimulating," she said.

"There are a lot of places I'm taking these projects, in a similar cognitive strain," she added. "Being an artist -- that is definitely my career." Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary