Celebrated for her dazzling, decorative portraits of bold, black women that reference art historical sources and pop culture, Mickalene Thomas has been on a meteoric ride ever since snagging a MFA in painting from Yale in 2002. An artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2003 and a standout in P.S. 1’s Greater New York survey show of new talent in 2005, Ms. Thomas has gained blue-chip gallery representation in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and landed her works in major museum collections across the country. With her current survey on view at the Brooklyn Museum and simultaneous solo shows at Lehmann Maupin’s spaces in Chelsea and the Lower East Side, Thomas sat down with FLATT contributor Paul Laster at her expansive Brooklyn studio to discuss her process, her influences, and the new directions in her work.
PAUL LASTER: How did you first come upon your mixed-media style?
MICKALENE THOMAS: I think that first came about in my undergrad studies. I was always interested in non-traditional materials and always integrated those materials into my work—from fabrics and glitter to magazine cutouts and yarn. In grad school I grew tired of working with glitter and went to Michael’s Craft Store and bought some rhinestones. The reason I gravitated towards the rhinestones was because I had been looking at Seurat. I first looked at Seurat in undergrad when I was making dot paintings that were inspired by aboriginal art, which I had discovered during my studies in Australia. I wanted to find a connection with art history, aboriginal art, and my experiences. I wanted to find a connection to how things were made and come up with a conceptual way of making work. When I was in graduate school I went back to that idea when I discovered the rhinestones. There was an impressionist quality reminiscent of pointillism.
PAUL LASTER: How important is collage to your process?
MICKALENE THOMAS: It allows me to juxtapose the image with various resources that I collect. It allows me to take my own photographic resources and found photographic resources and create a new image based on those elements. It allows me to respond to the world today. Our world is a mix of collaged images and information that we constantly have to sift through. Our world is constantly being covered or layered by some new form or idea, ideology or culture. As individuals we have to take parts from different elements to create our own world. I’m interested in a form of amalgamation, an overload of information—what does one do with that? How do you make sense of that? How do you ground yourself with all of these things that are going on? Can you create something new with all of that information?
PAUL LASTER: It seems like collage, photography, and painting are the foundations for your work. What part does painting play in this mix?
MICKALENE THOMAS: Painting is the basis for all of it. Not just because it’s working on a two-dimensional surface; it’s about the formality of painting. I approach all of my various mediums from the lens of painting, knowledge of painting, and an understanding of painting and technique. When I make photographs I approach them from the knowledge that I have about painting. I don’t approach it with the knowledge of photography. I’m not as skilled as a photographer. I’m still learning about the techniques and fundamental qualities of photography. I come from painting when I approach the subject, regardless of what tool I’m using.
I was recently filming my mother and there was something about the light that I saw when I was filming her. I had to stop and take a still image of her in that light because it was like a painting to me. I’m always thinking about painting. I’m always thinking about the color, the composition, and all of the formal aspects that I’ve learned through studying painting. That’s where I feel most comfortable and excited, while still trying to discover a language.
PAUL LASTER: Who are some of the artists that have influenced you along the way?
MICKALENE THOMAS: Painters from Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden to David Hockney and Matisse, and Courbet, Manet, Monet, and Seurat interest me. I’m finding that the more my studio practice develops that I have a great kinship towards the French Impressionist painters and it could be because they were controversial in a lot of aspects. It’s also because of what they painted, their subjects, their images, and how they painted. They were each innovators in their own way. I’m interested in those sorts of painters—ones that stepped out of their own box and took some risks, when there wasn’t much acceptance for a certain way of making art.
PAUL LASTER: Speaking of subjects, how do you find your subjects? Most of your subjects are women. Why women and how do you choose the ones you do?
MICKALENE THOMAS: I’m more comfortable with working with women and more comfortable with the female body. I understand it. I’m a woman. I understand how it feels to reside in a woman’s body. I choose women that I see a little of myself in. I think that’s what portraitists like. I gravitate toward either women that I see an essence of myself or women that I want to be like or like or that I’m attracted by. There’s something about the desire from within and there’s also something that’s inspired. That’s the kind of women that I’m excited to photograph and have in my space because they either possess something that excites me—and it has nothing to do with the libido, it’s more about “Damn, I like the way she walks.” It’s almost like giving a high-five or kudos because they are just flawless and fierce. It’s about whatever aspect of their life that I can see that exudes through how they reside in a space or walk into a room or sit or something and then it’s the little edginess about them. You look at them and maybe there’s a story, there’s something more and that just comes off and I like that.
PAUL LASTER: The women in your work are often the strong Foxy Brown type of gal or women from Blaxploitation films. Is that a style that you are influenced by and is it a retro style or are you trying to interpret it for contemporary times?
MICKALENE THOMAS: I think I’m trying to interpret it for contemporary times. When I first started making my work, it was rooted in the energy of images that I respected and knew, these kind of images of Foxy Brown. It was mainly because of their sort of prowess, and sexiness, and badass attitude, and grounded nature of not giving a fuck, [snaps fingers] and that they’re gonna kick ass. They were vigilantes. They were taking down the MAN or trying to get rid of the bad in their neighborhood. There was something about that form of heroism that I responded to and was attracted to. I was like OK, you can be sexy, comfortable with your sexiness, smart, and all these things and still kick ass.
Yeah, there were some stereotypes with those films, but for me watching them growing up, as a young black woman, why would you not look at Pam Grier and idealize that that’s how you wanted to be. For me, those films, it was more about, not the sexuality, but what all of those other things represent—that package that she represented in that time. Those films are very controversial and the thought that it was a black woman, that was very exciting to me and so I wanted to use that as an iconic form to present in my work. It’s the thing that I knew I was comfortable with and I was going to what I was familiar with and saying I’m going to take that image and I’m going to put it here and try to recreate those moments in my own work.
PAUL LASTER: That makes me think of the title of your museum show, The Origin of the Universe, which refers back to the French realists and particularly Courbet. What does that title mean to you?
MICKALENE THOMAS: It’s my world. This is the artist presenting herself and putting everything out there and being fully exposed, even to the documentary film that I made about my mother. The idea for this show is that you walk into the exhibition, you see my body—I’m the artist giving up something by sharing my origin of the universe. Then there are these environments, and then at the end you get this documentary about the artist’s mother and it’s both of us exposing ourselves. It’s like this is my universe; this is my world.
I started thinking about what it means to be an artist and that feeling of a gift. What’s a gift? I read that book called The Gift and thought about how as artists we’re always giving, our art is a gift—not that we’re talented and gifted and geniuses, that’s not what I’m saying. Rather that we’re giving a lot of ourselves to the world and it’s a very vulnerable place and it creates a very vulnerable situation on many levels. I was trying to figure out what that’s really about because it’s a very fragile place.
PAUL LASTER: How does the Brooklyn version of the survey show differ from the Santa Monica one?
MICKALENE THOMAS: The installation of the interior rooms is different here. In Santa Monica you viewed them through peepholes, like Duchamp’s Étant donnés. There are four installations with walls and furnishings, based on four of the models that posed for me. There are five new paintings, along with some videos and photographs that weren’t in the show. We’re also showing Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, which was at the Museum of Modern Art. I chose that to be in the show, even though it got almost two years of exposure in the Modern’s window, because I wanted to put it in a different context. I thought it was important for its historical life to not only have been seen through a window. I wanted to give the viewer another opportunity to experience the painting. When I presented the idea to Eugenie Tsai, the curator, she thought it was great. It will be contextualized with the other works and you can get to see how I got to that point and how it relates to the other works. And then there’s the 30-minute documentary about my mother, which I’m both nervous and excited about.
PAUL LASTER: What was your reason for making the documentary?
MICKALENE THOMAS: I’ve always used my mother in my work. She’s been my muse since 2000, when I was still at Yale. She was the first model or subject that I photographed. She has been sick for the past two years—in and out of the hospital some twenty times, while staying anywhere from two weeks to two months. I was thinking about beauty and its relationship to the notions that I work with, but also about aging, death, and life. I was thinking about how I hadn’t used my mother in two years. I hadn’t photographed her and I wanted to photograph her. She, however, wasn’t feeling up to it because she didn’t like the way she looked in the mirror. That struck a chord with me because I thought why am I not using my mother, do I feel the same way about her beauty?
She possesses a different type of beauty now that she’s sick and frail. The fact that she didn’t like looking at herself in the mirror got me thinking about what that really means and the philosophy of Lacan and the mirror. The mirror gives you a sense of validation about who you are; the mirror does and so does the camera. The camera acts like the mirror so I was thinking of all of these conceptual theories of what that could mean. I thought maybe I could make a different portrait of my mother—one that wasn’t necessarily a painting or a photograph but a conversation. That conversation would be documented and that conversation would be about a discovery between the artist and muse and a mother and daughter.
With that series of conversations a new portrait is created. That’s what I wanted with this. If someone was to say what was Mona Lisa’s life like, who’s that icon? Who is she really? What is her life really like? Is that a real person? And if it is a real person, who was she, where did she come from? What did she do? Was she poor? Because my mother is my muse, or one of them, I wanted to give a different layer behind that image. What are her aspirations? What are her dreams? What are her fears? That’s the inspiration for this film, but it’s also a conversation—a Q & A between a mother and a daughter.
I think sometimes children have things they want to ask their parents but they don’t and I think some people haven’t had the opportunity to ask their parents certain things before they pass and I think I started to call into question my mothers own life and mortality because she is very sick and there is the chance that she could die soon. I thought this was an opportunity to get some answers to questions that I’ve had for a long time.
PAUL LASTER: Now, you recently became a parent, as well. Your wife Carmen had a baby. How has that changed your life?
MICKALENE THOMAS: Tremendously! It’s beautiful. I love having a baby. I love her at this stage and I’m going to love her when she’s older. What I really love about having a kid is that you really start understanding time. Not that I didn’t understand time before, but I understand it much more. It’s so much more prevalent now because you see it changing in front of you. It’s like seeing a flower growing or seeing the buds opening on a tree. You see it from day to night, the evolution of change, immediately before your eyes. Now I really understand the importance of time. Time spent, time shared, time used, time wasted, all of that.
For me time is very valuable right now and it’s kind of interesting that I’m oscillating between the spaces of new life and an older life, which is my mother. I think that’s why I wanted to make this film. Here I have my mother, who’s very sick and her weakness and illnesses are taking a toll, and then I have this newborn. I’m bookended by these experiences, which leaves me with an awareness of time.