Top image: Hesitate (detail)
Why milk? Where did the idea come from?
Alexa: In March 2012 we started playing with the idea of photographing Sheila’s painted portrait as reflected off the surface of rippling water. It created a strikingly surreal, warped image of her painted face. This sparked us to explore other methods for creating portraits incorporating a liquid element.
Sheila: I was struck by the idea of using an opaque liquid canvas to disembody and re-shape the human form. I initially thought of milk because it worked so well logistically, but I was also really drawn to its conceptual implications. It's a procreative substance made only by the female body, so it's a really insightful context to explore the female form. So much of the femininity in this series - the softened colours, the polished curves, the swirling paint - was a direct result of the milk's behaviour. It's a powerful ingredient with a voice of its own.
White Out in progress by David Branson
Did you run into any problems?
Sheila: It's actually quite challenging to hold an expression that looks engaged and alive when you have to stay completely still in a freezing pool of milk with parts of your body balancing on floatation devices, and parts of your body resting on the hard concrete of a warehouse floor. It takes a lot of focus and breath. But if you lose that human element, it's no longer a living portrait. It'll look as dead as a still life if you're not relaxed and present.
Alexa: Sheila and I would spend a lot of time planning the visual identity for each painting. While we could translate our vision through my brushstrokes and Sheila’s performance, we often referred to the milk as a third partner in our collaboration because it would ultimately determine the final product. We could never predict how the milk would behave. For example, we could set out to make something that felt grotesque, but the milk would soften the hard edges to make it feel very graceful. We had to cede a certain amount of control to the force of the milk.
Shape (l) and Shift (r)
How do you feel when it's time to wash the paint off?
Alexa: I could spend a couple hours painting on Sheila and in as little as two minutes in the pool of milk, it could all be washed away. There is an incredibly short of window of time for me to get the right shot. If I miss the photo, then all our work is gone and we have nothing to show for it. I would always tell Sheila she needed to stay in the milk for “just one more shot” which would inevitably mean 20 more shots.
We would often try to extend the photography session for as long as possible, even if there didn’t appear to be enough paint left, just in case there was still a shot to be had. While photographing the series of Sight Unseen // Shape Shift, we had thought that by the time Shape and Shift (above) were taken that there wasn’t enough paint left to justify continuing. However, we were really surprised by how beautifully those images came out and they’re some of my favourite from the series.
Sheila: It's a relief to wash away that second layer of skin and become yourself again. It's like taking off a mask you've had to wear all day. I had to completely shower between each painting session, and we usually did 2-3 paintings a day. At that rate, you really start to feel like a mutable canvas. But this emotion, this kind of loss of identity, became a central part of our concept and the inspiration for our live performances in Zurich.
Sheila, how did you get involved with the project?
Sheila: I stumbled upon Alexa's work online while doing visual research for what I thought was going to be my next performance piece. I reached out to her about being involved, but our creative chemistry was so explosive in that first Skype meeting, that we decided to start a collaboration from scratch. She bought a ticket to LA and for six weeks we mostly did hands-on experiments that had nothing to do with either of our signature bodies of work. MILK was kind of a side-project that took on a life of its own.
Did you plan your poses or just react to the environment?
Sheila: Alexa and I plan the poses together, but they always get moulded once I'm positioned in the milk. As sections of the paint wash away, I have to submerge those areas of exposed skin to maintain the illusion of a painting. This constantly changes my gestures. I try to respond to what's happening in my surroundings. In Activate (above) I could see that the paint was dramatically leaving my skin and my expression became sad and subdued. I thought, it must be painful to witness your own dissolution, to let go of the lines that define you.
Alexa: We would have to find ways to maintain these poses in a liquid environment without having certain parts of her painted body fall below the water line. We got a kickboard at the dollar store that was invaluable in preventing the paint from washing away too fast.
Does it leave your skin silky soft?
Sheila: The milk does. The paint, not so much.
Alexa: We had a running joke about how much Jergens lotion we went through. We packed our suitcase to Switzerland full with it. You can even see a bottle in the photo of us photo editing together on the couch.
Hesitate in progress by David Branson
You must spend a lot of time together - is it ever a bit too close for comfort?
Alexa: While we have become very close over the passage of our collaboration, we still treat the physicality of our painting sessions with a degree of formality. To prevent things from getting too close for comfort, we are very respectful of each other’s personal space. While this can be a challenge when I’m up in Sheila’s face, quite literally when painting her face, I still maintain a sensitivity to her privacy.
Sheila: We have a similar, intense work ethic so we each had our moments of being over-whelmed, but we could always relate to each other. We were strangers less than a year ago, so there's certainly vulnerability involved, but we wouldn't have gotten this far if there wasn't a lot of mutual trust and respect. It's been surprisingly drama-free.
See more photos and read more about the project at alexasheila.com