Alexis Nunnelly: Breaking Down The Conventional Canvas

Entering Alexis’ light-flooded studio, located in a beautiful brownstone in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, you can sense a calm energy that radiates from her art and herself. The studio is filled with paintings, soft sculptures, photographs, watercolor paintings and plants. The beautiful color palette Alexis uses consists of yellow, pink, green and soft blue shades.

Predominant questions Alexis’ work reflect are based on art history and society's preconceptions. How could the medium and context of an image of a female nude cause such a different reaction in people? Why are photographs of nude bodies commonly considered vulgar, while nude paintings hang in museums? Is the medium what really matters or is it what's being presented?

Leading up to her current exhibition at the New York Studio School, Alexis tells us about how 2020 has given her the chance to reflect on her own journey as an artist.

A: This year was so interesting to pump the breaks and see how life was operating before all of this and being like "Wow, I was going crazy a little bit but it is also amazing how everyone was making it work.” Finding time to foster passions and creativity during quarantine was probably the best thing that happened. I feel super grateful for that. Spending time to journal every morning, doing yoga, gardening. I bought a film camera and I started learning things that I probably wouldn't have given time to before because I was like “oh painting, painting, painting” but everything can be part of your art and creativity.

“It has made me so much happier to step away from all the connotations of what I thought painting or being a painter had to look like. The job of an artist in culture is really to create.

A: [The lockdown] It’s given me time to take time and be like "Ok, so how does this work for me? What's working and what's not working?" I am the CEO of my own art practice, or whatever you want to call it, if that’s what that means, then how does that look for me? How am I helping people? What is my service to come from all this?

All these questions and time to reflect and hone new and old creative activities, gave Alexis the opportunity to explore pass the conventional canvas and take her art to different mediums. During the lockdown, Alexis started sending friends and family drawings of iPhones with messages written on them. This led her to create beautiful soft sculptures, which really are a sculpture-painting-toy hybrid. She talks about how we have become so comfortably attached to technology, especially our phones. She wanted these objects to be soft and toy-like to represent the comfort that they bring into our everyday life.

A painting can be on a fucking iPhone. That is a painting. It doesn’t have to be on a canvas, stretched on wood, on a wall. Breaking down all this art historical stuff and thinking about how it gets rebuilt, are some of the questions that I've been asking myself recently.

Besides challenging the form of paintings and sculptures, Alexis’ work reflects on preconceptions of the nude female body and how it is and has been perceived throughout history and different mediums.

A: I do paint a lot of sexy women in these precarious situations, but really where I draw all that inspiration from is our history and collaging all of these images we have access through technology and the internet.

Aiming to reclaim the power of the nude female body that has been taken and picked apart by whichever medium it has been presented in, she draws inspiration from old photographs that on their day, would have been considered porn. By painting these old erotic photographs into a different medium in her unique style, Alexis challenges the viewer on their own preconceptions of the female nude.

A: This is an image from an old erotic photograph but why is it that somebody would look at that and be like "Woah this is pornography” but then looking at a painting of it, they might think it is less vulgar? You obviously look at all these nudes in museums but if they were pictures, it would be a very different conversation. Talking and thinking about that, translating it, and collaging it all together, conveying its beauty but showing it also in a grotesque way - showing that full spectrum. In a few words, the translation of the female nude through painting and photography.

All in all, Alexis has been challenging traditional ideas engrained in society to become the artist that she is today. Growing up she paved her path to attend med school. After trying it our for a semester, she quickly realized that what she was truly passionate about was sociology, the human experience, the mind the body and figure drawing. She decided to change degrees to attend the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis where is originally from.

There was a slot at a Residency in Michigan called Ox-Bow and every year, the school would pick (typically) a grad student. I got the spot for the residency as an undergrad and spent 3 months in a cabin in the woods and it was this life changing thing. People from Pratt, SAIC, RISD, all these big schools were there. It gave me a lot of confidence, that was the first time when I was like “Oh, I can do this". The people were amazing and interesting and beautiful, I wanted to get out and travel and do this thing and meet all these people.

An inspiring professor at Herron, Heather Stamenov, gave Alexis a Philip Guston book where she first learned about the New York Studio School. A few days later after reading about it she decided to apply for a Drawing Marathon class that would take her to New York City. Her connection to the school and New York would lead her chose the school for her graduate education. Alexis' MFA Thesis exhibition at the New York Studio School will run from December 8 through December 13, 2020. Don't miss the chance to view her work in person and book a timed slot to attend the free exhibition here. If you are not able to physically attend, check it out on Artsy.