New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas, best known for her labor-intensive paintings, talks to AS IF Magazine about her new projects.







The following conversation took place in New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas’s studio in Brooklyn while she was in the final stages of preparation for her show at the Seattle Art Museum, Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, which featured three solo shows from the three artists. The conversation focuses on and develops around one specific painting, Portrait of Maya, 2018. We begin with the idea of portraiture and muses, develop the concept of photography as a medium in her practice, and further reach into video and the importance of collage as a fundamental in her work.

AS IF: Let’s discuss your new Portrait of Maya #10.

Mickalene Thomas: It was based on a series of photographs I had taken of Maya [the artists former lover] in our home and basement studio on Lexington Avenue, Brooklyn. What I appreciate about those photographs is they were shot with a 35mm disposable camera, so the quality and resolution were low. The residue and intimacy of the framework reminds me of the nudes in the 70’s. I wondered the one-hour photo thought of those resique images as they processed them.

They’re extremely intimate as if they’re voyeuristic, and they feel like they had been clipped out of a porn magazine.

Not porn, beautiful nudes, like the Jet Beauties of the week! I started working with photography in early 2000, as a tool for my paintings to formalize my compositions and have material to reference. It didn’t matter to me that I was developing my photos at a one-hour photo. I’ve now upgraded my photographic process and taken it seriously by using more sophisticated cameras. My photographs can stand alone and no longer are references for my paintings. I’m having fun experimenting with different photographic techniques. In Maya #10 I used Photoshop to enhance this sense of movement by layering several photos of Maya. I’m interested in the types of compositional techniques that create a depth of field or visual illusion; juxtaposing the painted elements with photographic elements.

mickalene thomas artist portrait

Mickalene Thomas at her home in Brooklyn by Tatijana Shoan

I love the contrast from early Maya, to Maya now. Your earliest work always had beads, and the photo has developed a three-dimensional element visually.

Absolutely. I was thinking about Duchamp’s “the nude descending the staircase, No.2” I appreciate how he is using constructed modes of abstraction by assembling the painting elements to suggest rhythm and movement within the figure. In my case I’m using photographic elements to create rhythm and movement. I’m interested in the relationship between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional; for example, the way the eye may initially perceive the painting as a two-dimensional image, but an additional layer is physically added with the rhinestones. This idea is taken even further in Maya #10. The figure is standing almost monumentally, looking down at the viewer and commanding the space with her arms raised behind her head like wings spread. I try to select my materials so that the paintings appear transformative; I’m conveying strength, beauty, power and vulnerability.

All your work is narrative, and I love the idea of painting as a short film.

My videos and films definitely support my painting practice as narrative short films. I dabbled in video during undergrad, but I didn't start really experimenting with video until late 2008, just before my first solo show with Lehmann Maupin She’s Come UnDone!. I worked on a video series called Ain’t I A Woman. I would set up a video camera while I was shooting. I remember with one particular model, Carrie, she was doing so many different movements that were too fast to actually capture because I was using a medium format camera, but what’s exciting to see is how it was caught on film.

“I try to select my materials so that the paintings appear transformative; I’m conveying strength, beauty, power and vulnerability.”

The video idea I go back to immediately is one of you and Raquel at Hôtel Costes in Paris. In a strange way, it's very similar to the early portrait of Maya; it’s black and white, extremely romantic, extremely personal and voyeuristic.

Yes, Je t’aime and Je t’aime Deux. It’s film noir, romantic and voyeuristic. It’s a love story. I filmed it Paris and Connecticut. I think there’s a tendency for certain themes to emerge within my practice even if they weren’t intentionally highlighted, or were only sort of touched upon in the past. I really believe that as an artist everything you do, even drawing a simple line, will make sense to you at some point in your process.

Many years ago at The Carlyle Hotel we went to see Eartha Kitt, and Eartha became a major factor in some of your videos.

All the music in The Ain’t I A Woman series videos are by Eartha Kitt. My mother introduced me to her music when I was about 10. But my own connection and great love for Eartha Kitt developed in graduate school; due not only to her tremendous talent, but also her social/political position as an artist, her keen creativity sensibility, and the self-preservation of her voice. She was a great force who ferociously and fearlessly defined who she was regardless of how anyone saw her. She stood-up for things she believed in and was subsequently blacklisted for over 25 years but never allowed negativity to stop her from doing what she believed. That became a great source of inspiration for me, and gave me a sense of empowerment and an understanding of what it’s like to have your back up against the wall. She was blacklisted for over 25 years and had to work in Europe. As a black woman, I always admired how she used her platform as a tool to inspire others while entertaining us despite the obstacles she’s endured. I My first time really using Eartha Kitt in my work was in one of my thesis show paintings at Yale.

mickalene thomas artist portrait
mickalene thomas artist portrait
mickalene thomas artist portrait

Mickalene Thomas at her home in Brooklyn by Tatijana Shoan

I didn’t realize that, you have certainly come full circle.

I did a series of paintings of my mentors for my thesis show: Donna Summer, Eartha Kitt, Josephine Baker, and I cast myself as Mary J. Blige. Eartha Kitt was the first in this series and she’s become an angel on my shoulder and a voice in my head. She’s come back to the new work, and in my video Muse as Muse I use her biography as a narrative layer. Even though it’s not my story, as a black woman I see myself in her. I think in order to be authentic and become who you are you also need to recognize yourself in others. The persona of Eartha Kitt is like the rhinestones in my work: a tool that I found and latched onto.

When I look at your work, it is a form of performance, and it definitely entertains. Your use of color is amazing, and I feel when someone sees it they're lighting up and are effected. Do you see them the way I see them?

Yes, now especially. Artists starting out will use material that they are attracted to or out of necessity because they are more economically accessible. Some artists work at a certain size because of space constraints. Someone who is a sculptor might not have the space to do large sculptures, so they begin to make collages. That’s why the rhinestones became so significant at beginning of my practice. I couldn’t afford oil paint, I was kind of past acrylic, and glitter and rhinestones were really inexpensive at Michael’s craft store. I could buy rhinestones and glitter in bulk, and they had the same hues as acrylic or oil paints. I have always been someone who gravitates towards non-traditional materials so it made sense, especially at that particular time when I was thinking about French Impressionism, specifically Georges Seurat and pointillism.

Mickalene Thomas Maya portrait artwork

Mickalene Thomas. Portrait of Maya #10. 2017

Rhinestones and acrylic paint on canvas mounted wood panel

96 x 84 inches, 243.8 x 213.4 cm

Courtesy of the Artist and Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

It worked, everyone fell head over heels for it. I want to go through the history of your muses. Maya could be the first serious muse, then we have Racquel the most recent muse, and we have Mama Bush who was a very serious muse.

I will start with my mother because she was the first one I started photographing during graduate school. I photographed her in a negligee dressed as Pam Grier because I wanted her to emulate one of her favorite characters. She had a sort of affinity for Pam because she was about the same height, had the same charisma, and they both shined when they walked into a room. I immediately thought about using her in my work when I began using photography as a tool for my paintings. At that time, it was a way for me to rebuild a

The three muses are all intimate figures in your life so they became a reflection of who you are. Obviously, all the psychological material around them is very important to you because it is your family.

And then came Maya, whose health issues were a major motivation for some of those early photos. She and I were basically using this work to document who she was because she has lupus and she was always thinking about how long she was going to live. As her partner at that time I also wanted to model my work around her so that she would have an opportunity to see herself as I saw her, in the light of inspiration.

Your work about them inspired them, and you gave them a great gift with this reflection.

Racquel was probably the most challenging to use as a muse. Even though I’ve taken a lot of photographs of her I’m just now starting to make a series of paintings of her, and I have only done four. I wasn’t at all hesitant, but I was thinking a lot about who she is and where she came from since she was in the modeling industry. I never wanted the paintings to feel as though I used an image from a fashion magazine. That's not the energy she gives off. All three women have different levels of self-awareness and confidence.

Mickalene Thomas Blues artwork
Mickalene Thomas Blues artwork

“I think in order to be authentic and become who you are you also need to recognize yourself in others. The persona of Eartha Kitt is like the rhinestones in my work: a tool that I found and latched onto.”

I want to talk about your collage, but also the scale change of your work. For the Decopolis show we had the little faces and the scale changed with that series of paintings. It wasn't a realistic projection of the muse or the figure.

Shortly after my 2012 show at Brooklyn Museum I did a series of work with landscapes and interiors. I made a couple of paintings that were based on collage, still a relatively new process. While working on the Decopolis show I had the opportunity to collaborate with people that assisted me on photo shoots, like my makeup artist, and that really became a turning point for my collages. He felt a little apprehensive about doing work for the show that might fall outside of the usual scope of his makeup art, so I suggested we make some collages together. I thought it was really cool for us to look at photos of his makeup as a reference point. We would look at those photographs and I would say, why don’t you choose the colored pencils and the blush or the foundation that you used for that particular model, you’ll make a mark and then I will make my mark, cut it up, or deconstruct it. Every time he would make any sort of mark on an image I would cut it out and make a new shape – we developed a really nice dialogue.

The landscape and interiors were also very Picasso like.

I was thinking about Picasso and his portraits. I was considering Cubism in my work and relating that to constructivism. I felt that looking at Cubism, Picasso, and African sculpture was a nice way to figure out how I could deconstruct figures, but since I was working with real subjects I never wanted it to seem like I was defacing them. I was concerned about cutting up their bodies or faces in my collages. Once I did that series for your show I began making more collages. I would take past photographs and construct new versions of them by applying Cubist techniques. It’s a great way of allowing people to enter the work and see themselves in the images without losing the original intentions of the piece.