Follow the White Rabbit through Bryant Park and into the interactive painted world of Wonderland Dreams, a Fifth Avenue immersive art installation from the mind and hands of world-renowned artist Alexa Meade. Wonderland Dreams invites art lovers of all ages to step into the painting and become living art, along the storied journey through Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Think of living art as an invitation to explore the inside of a painting with all of your senses. What normally is limited to viewership within frames and behind glass gets transformed into a floor-to-ceiling sensory art experience that encourages viewers to step into the painting and become part of the optical illusion. Meade’s hand-painted style covers every inch of the space, from the floors and ceilings to the cafe benches to each and every interactive prop you come across.
Though this might be your first up-close introduction to Alexa Meade, it may not be the first time you’ve seen her work in the open. Meade’s art has been featured in museums and institutions around the world, including the Grand Palais in Paris, the Saatchi Gallery in London, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations in NYC. You may have seen Meade’s work on Ariana Grande in her “God Is a Woman” video, where Grande was painted head-to-toe by Meade herself. Meade has designed interactive installations at Coachella and Art Basel; been featured by brands like Apple, BMW, Lego, and Sony; and was made artist-in-residence at both Google and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.While the art installation is generally open to all ages, Wonderland Dreams also offers special events after dark for the 21 and up crowd. One such event is the Night of the Living Paintings immersive experience. Basically, if you’ve ever found yourself in MoMA after a Sunday bottomless brunch, you’re the key demographic for this night out, which adds free bottomless drinks to your living art exploration. As a member of the boozy art lover community, I decided to take the route of the curious and curiouser and venture into the mind of Alexa Meade, champagne in hand.
Upon entering, we check in with the hosts, and they direct us toward the bar and painting area, where Meade is already at work, painting one of the models for the evening. Not every event hosted by Wonderland Dreams includes an opportunity to watch Meade at work, so I considered myself lucky to be able to snag a ticket to see the artist in her element live.
My friend and I grab some champagne and cheese from a table of piled-high charcuterie boards and make our way to an open spot in the crowd to get a closer look at the action. The model stands patiently while Meade uses long brush strokes of color to fill in all the space where his skin is showing, outside his already Meade-designed clothing. She works quickly and meditatively, and the crowd around is mesmerized with the transformation.
After Meade finishes, the model alternates walking and dancing around the space, stopping periodically for photos with guests. I ask him if he would mind my taking a few photos, and he kindly acquiesces and steps out of his virtual frame. What follows is a thrilling mini-photo shoot, where the model gives me so much to work with, I freeze my phone trying to capture every moment.
After my foray into live painting photography, my friend and I wander through the top floor, which includes a life-size chess set, whimsically painted furniture, a painted and playable baby grand piano, and an exhibit of Meade portraits. One of the portraits stops me cold, because it looks uncannily similar to me. I check the golden plaque next to it and learn that my doppelgänger is model and artist B. Justine Jaime. It’s a fitting moment for this mad artistic romp, and I’m eager to see what other surprises the exhibition has to offer.
After another flute of champagne, we head down the rainbow-emblazoned stairs and into the immersive, hand-painted Wonderland exhibition, where we’re greeted with room after room of interactive, photo-worthy art pieces. One room is full of tiny townhouses and cars, perfect for little ones to play in. Another has a single carousel horse surrounded by dreamy scenic walls in orangey sunset colors. Each room we discover employs a different theme, but all tie together into a modern Wonderland story. Many of them offer interactive elements, like painted clothing and hats you can try on and capture photos in. One of the rooms even allows you to take on the role of artist yourself, where you can paint the roses on display with your own artistic flavor, an entertaining prospect for kids and adults alike.
The hand-crafted detail throughout every inch of the installation is breathtaking and requires no expertise in the field of art to enjoy. Meade’s intent with the space is to turn what is three-dimensional into only two, and by entering and interacting with these rooms, you automatically take part in her grand thesis. This isn’t a museum trip to look at paintings on a wall. It’s permission granted to enter the canvas, to feel and experience, rather than merely viewing.
As we continue through the looking glass experience, the rooms take on a madder tone. We’re handed 3-D glasses and ushered through glowing rooms full of black lights, vines of fabric dangling from ceilings, checkerboards, stripes, and walls covered in words and sticky notes. My friend and I laugh as we struggle to make our way through the vines, impaired by the 3-D glasses on our faces.
We’re rewarded for our efforts when we arrive in the most story-like part of the landscape. We take our seats at a mad tea party, surrounded by painted rose bushes and other scenes familiar to Alice in Wonderland fans. Here you can play with larger-than-life playing cards, crawl through tiny painted doors, and grab a photo with a giant mushroom or two. Like Alice, who navigates Wonderland with childlike awe and delight, Wonderland Dreams encourages its visitors to lean into a wonderfully mad experience of color, light, and touch.
We finish up our exploration of the exhibition and head back upstairs where staff members are waiting to give us paint and wooden figures to create our own Meade-inspired pieces. I choose a star wand and my friend decides on a little wooden elephant. We pick our colors and get to work.
Quick tip: if you’d like to be sure that your art is dry before you leave, make sure to paint before you explore.
Additional tip: if you grab a glass of wine, make sure to set it away from your paint water, so you don’t accidentally rinse off your paintbrush in rosé like the author did.
As the night begins to wrap, Alexa Meade gathers everyone to share the story of how Wonderland Dreams came about. The 26,000-square-foot space was once a Best Buy, and it took over 1,000 gallons of paint, 20 painting assistants trained in Meade’s hand-painted style, and thousands of props and costumes to become the art experience it is today. Not bad for a former box store!
Our last stop is the gift shop, which is filled with Meade-styled goodies with prices that won’t make you feel guilty for choosing one or three to take home. And take my word for it, this is one evening you’ll want to commemorate with a memento. In the words of Meade herself:
“...you can find the strange in the familiar. As long as you’re willing to look beyond what’s already been brought to light, then you can see what’s below the surface, hiding in the shadows, and recognize that there can be more there than meets the eye.”
My friend and I leave feeling lucky to live in a city where you can spend a Friday evening stepping through the looking glass into a world of living color, just the way Alexa Meade dreams life to be.
529 Fifth Ave. (btw. 43rd & 44th Sts.), wonderlanddreams.com
Wonderland Dreams Hours
Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays from noon-7:30pm (last tickets at 6pm)
Fridays from noon-8:30pm (last tickets at 7pm)
Sundays from 10am-7:30pm (last tickets at 6pm)