More Than Everything: Mickalene Thomas

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Mickalene Thomas, Le Jardin d’Eau de Monet, 2011. Colour photograph and paper collage on archival board, 13.5″ x 19.25″.

Lehmann Maupin’s Chrystie Street gallery opened the 2011 fall season with Mickalene Thomas’ second solo show, More Than Everything, which was on view until October 29th. Thomas has been hyper-prolific, creating works in critical engagement with inquiries into gender, race, class and sexuality.

More Than Everything introduced a schematic freshness into her material process and conceptual threading. What surprised me most was the scale of Thomas’ new pieces. I’m used to standing back from her paintings, large and bejeweled, then stepping up closer to inspect technical habits, not the subject matter. More Than Everything demanded a far more intimate, salon style viewing: works were smaller in scale and meticulously constructed.

While Thomas has been analyzing traditional depictions within Western Painting, this show featured a renewed exploration of the dialogue between painting and photography. The history of photography was prominent in this show not just in large scale polaroids, but also in the presence of specific references to photography’s role beyond being a painter’s tool: framing and perspective. (Bellocq and LeGray’s impact on Courbet; Nadar on Manet—these two definitely came to mind). And then Bearden, of course. Thomas acknowledges these historical progressions without creating work that feels dated or mechanical. It just feels complete.


While preparing for three solo shows in 2012, Thomas was kind enough to make time for an exclusive interview, in which we discuss aesthetic influences, the creative process and what’s new in the studio. What follows is an edited interview with the artist, completed in November 2011.

Patricia: Congratulations on your second solo show! For some reason I was expecting larger works. Scale activates intimacy, and the edges of your collages really pulled me in.  It’s almost like you treated background as an extension of character, which is something I think you do anyway.
Mickalene:  Yes, the backgrounds are every bit as important as the figures they contain (or the figures that are absent in the more recent collages of interiors and landscapes). Part of this importance is a function of the process of making any object for me—the collages, as objects, need to be interesting on all levels, including their edges and peripheral spaces. They are not simply presentations of images or ideas but are also formal objects. In this way, I work to make the representational space competitive- with the figure-ground relationship as complicated as possible.

Another reason the environments in the collages are so important is that they are an extension of the women in the work. The interiors and landscapes are highly constructed representations of a particular view of the world, just as the women in my work are highly constructed representations of aspects of themselves. Certain objects, patterns, colors, and spatial relationships bring to mind different ideas of beauty, time, nostalgia, and artifice. Really, it’s all about artifice and formal relationships.

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Mickalene Thomas, Photomontage 10A, 2009. Mixed media, 43″ x 68″ x 4″.

Regarding Photomontage 10A, I thought this was a very blatant and effective way to reference the gaze. Perhaps I’m projecting my own ideas here, but when I see those frames, I immediately view them as representative of class structure and commodification. The layers and layers of these gazes is a collage in itself.
That’s a really interesting way of looking at the photomontage. For this series, I used frames that I collect at dollar stores and attached them to linoleum flooring tiles—materials that could be considered artifacts of aspirational consumerism for people that can’t really afford the “real” thing.

I use those materials because they are readily available and they fit closely in with my fascination of the ways we construct our environments using whatever is at hand to offer a “better” image of ourselves.  The frames provide a method of directing the viewer’s gaze to a particular portion of the photograph or to obstruct that gaze so that one has to sort of peer around the frame to see what’s behind. The setup starts to become sort of voyeuristic as the viewer works to catch a glimpse of the woman buried in the frames.

Any time a frame is put around something, it is signaled as “important.” I enjoy the way that the stacked frames in the photomontage simultaneously communicate importance while obstructing the image framed, jostling for attention.

What is it about reframing and repositioning selections from art history that is such a rewarding process for your work?
Part of my motivation comes from a desire to reclaim these canonized images of beauty and reinterpret them, inserting the figures of black women who have largely been missing or marginalized throughout the history of Western art.

I also use this strategy as a way of aligning myself with artists I identify with.  In this way, I am creating the context I want my work to be viewed within; that my work be thought of as a part of the conversations running down through the history of art and not only a departure or commentary. To take some sort of ownership or participation in the work of artists like Matisse, Manet, Romare Bearden, Balthus, Courbet, Warhol, Duchamp—that’s incredibly exciting for me as an artist!

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Mickalene Thomas, Courbet 3 (Sleep), 2011. Polaroid, 24″ x 20″. Right: Mickalene Thomas, Interior, Striped Foyer, 2011. Colour photograph and paper collage, 11″ x 8.5″.

I think you work conceptually in a very tactile manner. Have you always trusted direct tactile contact?
Yes! Since my earliest efforts making art, I have been fascinated by material experimentation and recognized the importance of “the hand” in my work.  Early on, I experimented with glitter and collage with my paintings and they have always shown the evidence of their making.  I think the collages show this particularly well—they are definitely very handled!

And since photography is part of your process, I’d like to ask you: what is your relationship to the photographic moment/act/event?  
I am always looking for the moment of a deeper sort of self-awareness in my models. That gaze that shows a full embodiment of whatever aspect of herself that she has found at that moment during the photo shoot. I emphasize that this is an aspect of the model’s self, not her true self or anything like that. I’m looking for her embodiment of her own alter ego. Photography is the perfect tool for exploring artifice and the construction of beauty. The photo shoots are a collaboration with the women I work with and in this way, the photographic event becomes a sort of dance.

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Mickalene Thomas, Naomi Campbell Number 1, 2011. Colour photograph, vintage wall paper and paper collage on archival board, 6.75″ x 10.5″.

In those collaborations, you reveal so much of their power, which makes these pieces initially captivating, but then there’s more. One can fall in love with the awe of beauty, the reward of detail, the atmospheric consequences of creative choices. Your work does this all at once but it retains a certain calm through it all, and I can’t quite explain how that happens, really.
I want my work to have many different layers working at the same time. There’s the psychological intensity of the figures, their gaze and there’s also the sometimes cacophonous spaces that these figures inhabit.  With the landscapes and interiors, I fracture the space, stretch it out and generally do what I can to get a sense of play and movement in the work. With all these aspects sometimes crashing at each other, I am always conscious of the final piece as a whole—maybe that’s the “certain calm” that you see in the work, me stepping back from the work to bring it all together…

What do you value most about your creative process?
What I value most in my creative process is the ability for the work to shift and grow over time as a result of a steady studio practice. I am in love with this idea that, through play and practice or execution, my work will eventually surprise even me with where it goes next.

At this point in time, what do you struggle with the most as an artist?
Honestly, I struggle with the work/life balance. It seems like I never, ever have enough time in the studio but all I do is work! Right now I’m starting to push a significant change in my work, which is always hard, but also super exciting.

What you struggle with as a creative entity—has that changed or evolved over time?
Definitely. Starting out, I spent a lot of time learning how to use my materials and express my ideas through them. I have also gone through periods where I have had to struggle with how to shift the subject of my work, moving away from direct portraiture. At this point, I have such a deep understanding of my materials (the rhinestones, oil enamel, and acrylic) that I’m looking to shake things up and re-introduce a material struggle in my work.

So…what are you working on now? What are you unraveling in your studio these days?

Wow, I’m working on so much right now!  My studio is full of new work for three solo shows coming up in 2012. The first will be at Santa Monica Museum of Art in April, the second at Brooklyn Museum of Art in September, and the third at Lehmann Maupin in October.

I’m drawing a lot of the inspiration for this new body of work from Courbet’s 1866 painting, L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) and Marcel Duchamp’s response in assemblage Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage . . . (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas . . . ).  For these shows, I am considering notions of the landscape and domestic interiors as body, the body as landscape or domestic interior, and broadening my exploration of the classic genres of portraiture and landscape.