Oyster #99: Mickalene Thomas Shot By Cass Bird
"I welcome criticism, but I'm going to make what I make."
You can spot a Mickalene Thomas artwork a mile away. She is known for her spectacularly colourful portraits of African-American women, created with paint and collage and then bedazzled with rhinestones and glitter. She mixes Warhol with Matisse, mug shots with odalisques, and blaxploitation with high art — in her eyes, there is no single definition of beauty.
Eugenie Dalland: How did your opening go?
Mickalene Thomas: Great! I was actually really surprised at the hospitality of LA — I feel like it has a different community of artists that is very close-knit. Everyone knows one another, mainly because of the colleges and art schools. It was nice to receive some love from the artists there.
I'm really interested in your process — you combine performance, collage, photography, painting and even carpentry to produce your portraits. Can you describe your approach step-by-step?
I start with building the set in the corner of my studio, reupholstering the furniture, putting up new wallpaper … then calling the models that I usually work with. The shoot usually lasts about six hours, maybe eight. I have a make-up artist, hair stylist, photo assistant, a production assistant, and me. I shoot a lot of film, and once I get either the contact sheets or the DVD I'll choose which ones I want for the paintings. Those get printed up, and I make my collages from them. I project the collage, draw it, make changes, and that's when the painting starts. It's pretty involved. After I do some of the under-painting, I do all the outlines with rhinestones.
You've described your photo shoots as being very collaborative — in what way?
All the models I work with I've known for at least five years. They're part of the work — I'm just delivering what they present. They arrive and we talk and they get into it … To me it's like a dance: you practice together, you work together, your feet fall into this rhythm. It's beautiful and it's somewhat unspoken.
Your work is very visually opulent. What is the thought process behind the spectacle? The variety of prints, rhinestones, colours…
It's the idea of artifice. We have this constant need to beautify ourselves and make ourselves presentable; to get attention … I'm interested in the ideas that fall into the ideology of what beauty is. When I initially started using the rhinestones it wasn't about the idea of artifice or superficial needs. It was more about the material and thinking about it in a formal way, which came about from my interests in [artist Georges] Seurat and abstract painting. I was really interested in Aboriginal dot paintings, so I went to Australia to study for a few months and it was amazing. I wanted to work with materials that were untraditional, or craft materials. That's actually how working with the rhinestones came about.
A lot of your titles are taken from songs, aren't they?
Oh, I use music all the time — actually, all of my titles up until the work for 2012 were based on song lyrics and titles. A lot of them are taken from Millie Jackson and Donna Summer, Eartha Kitt — all female vocalists. I actually hate to title my work, but I feel it's necessary because the titles act as a narrative for the work, without being heavy-handed.
What do you do when you need to get out of the studio and relax?
I go for a run or ride my Vespa. I love weeding — we have a garden in our backyard, it's so therapeutic. I need to be forced to relax, because I always want to get things done, but my partner and I are expecting a baby so I think that needs to change.
Congratulations! Do you have a name yet?
Her name's going to be Junya Rei. They're Japanese names.
As in the fashion designers Junya Watanabe and Rei Kawakubo?
Exactly! No one else figured that out yet.
I take it you're into Japanese designers?
I used to wear them a lot. I really love Paul Harnden, his materials are amazing; they make me feel good, understated. I wear Rick Owens too, and I love Margiela. I'll always love Rei Kawakubo, but I'm seeing too many hearts with eyes around on the street.
Which female artists are you interested in? Who has influenced you?
I really like Deana Lawson's work; she's an amazing photographer. Alice Neel — she's someone I've always looked at. I think she's one of the best American portrait artists. I'm reading a book about her by Phoebe Hoban called The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. I used to look at Agnes Martin a lot. I feel like she and I did the opposite: she started out as a portrait painter and then moved to abstraction, and I started in abstraction and moved to portraiture. I love her work. A lot of the art I'm interested in has nothing to do with my own.
I read that the photographer Carrie Mae Weems, in particular, had a big impact on your work.
I think I first saw her work at the Portland Art Museum in 1993 or 1994. That was the first time I was exposed to a contemporary black female artist, and it was in a museum. I saw that show several times. She had an exhibition in 1995 at the MoMA when I moved from Portland to New York, and I remember that opening night very vividly — it was October 31, 1995. My aunt … invited me to the opening, and I met Carrie. I was so shy and I couldn't talk, though now she and I are really good friends. I remember telling her, "You changed my life." I was sitting there thinking, "I want to make people feel the way she makes me feel right now."
A lot of your work references classical portraiture. When did you first come in contact with this genre?
It really came about when I started thinking about beauty and confronting ideals of beauty. I gravitate towards the French Impressionists and the French painters because they were more interested in the underbelly and everyday people. Their works became extremely iconic and important in reshaping our ideology of beauty and what's accepted and considered sexy. I always felt that by placing my portraits in the same context as these iconic, classical portraits it would be a way of reclaiming them and understanding them. I like to think of it as a conversation.
How did you reconcile this with the objectification of women in those iconic classical portraits?
I wanted to engage in the conversation in a different way. I wanted to say, "I'm beautiful, period." I'm going to keep saying that. These artists were challenging social and cultural ideals in their own way, and that's what I'm interested in doing. I guess I can say that I'm a feminist artist because to not say that would be sort of hypocritical, but I don't feel that I need to say that — the same way I don't always necessarily talk about my sexuality. I'm very conscientious about my work not being pigeonholed into one category.
Do you feel that your work is inspirational to other women artists?
They tell me it is — I get that all the time. I think my work is more criticised by women artists who are my peers. I welcome criticism, but I'm going to make what I make. I'm constantly figuring it out. I don't have all the answers — sometimes I don't know what I'm making or why I'm making it — but I feel that there's a response to which I need to make an image for.
Interview: Eugenie Dalland
Photography: Cass Bird
Photographic Assistant: DIANE RUSSO, Retouching: 4C Imaging, Production: ART DEPARTMENT
Special thanks to Chuck at ColorOne for scanning.