The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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SEPT 2021 Issue
Art In Conversation

Mickalene Thomas with Amber Jamilla Musser

“I’m interested in how technology can inform a painting practice by implementing programs and tools like Photoshop in the same way I use a brush and paint to enhance or inform the image.”

Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui. Photo: Andrew Mangum
Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui. Photo: Andrew Mangum

Beginning September 9 in New York City, Lévy Gorvy will present Mickalene Thomas: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a multi-site exhibition opening throughout the fall. Each location positions different iterations of Mickalene Thomas’s (b. 1971, Camden, New Jersey) decades-long exploration of Black female subjectivity and desire alongside her play with the art history canon. The exhibition in London (September 30) will feature large collage paintings based on archival material from Jet magazine. The London show will also present an experimental video collaboration between Thomas and Racquel Chevremont. In Paris Galerie Nathalie Obadia has partnered with Lévy Gorvy and will present Thomas’s new series of paintings on Black activism and resistance. And, finally, the Hong Kong site (October 15) offers a more extensive examination of Thomas’s engagement with Picasso, Leger, and Warhol. In anticipation of this multi-city extravaganza and the publication of the artist’s first monograph (from Phaidon), Amber Jamilla Musser visited Mickalene Thomas’s studio in Brooklyn to discuss the new paintings, Thomas’s processes of art-making, collaboration, and portraiture.

Mickalene Thomas: The Jet images impacted me as a young kid and how I see myself. My mother always had a copy of Jet. I remember immediately turning to the “Beauty of the Week” page before reading anything else. I was always interested in the descriptions of these women. Over the past few years, I contemplated the power of these images and how they shifted and affected my notion of beauty, Black erotica, and sensuality. For the Portrait of Quanikah #5 the concept was conceived while I was a grad student at Yale. I was taking Kellie Jones’s performance art class and began my journey of performative work. She allowed me to produce a series of images instead of writing a paper. I created several performative photographs—one of me as a “Beauty of the Week” and another of me as Mary J. Blige.

Mickalene Thomas, <em>Mary J. Me</em>, 2002. Rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, 60 x 48 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.
Mickalene Thomas, Mary J. Me, 2002. Rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, 60 x 48 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.

During my time at Yale, I made a painting, Mary J. Me (2002), but not as a “Beauty of the Week.” These images remained as photos until 2018. I am attracted to and excited about the idea of exploring these images now. At the time, I was working on my exhibition for the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) while visiting New Orleans, and Carla Williams, the owner of Material Life, sold me several Jet calendars. I think most people are familiar with the “Beauty of the Week,” but not so much the pinup calendars. Material Life and BLK MKT Vintage both specialize in Black memorabilia, and now these calendars are resurfacing, especially since the Getty and other private collectors purchased Jet images. These calendars are now available to the public. My work consists mostly of me photographing my models, my friends, and my partner. I have a resource of images to pull from for my paintings. But these Jet calendars kept glaring at me, demanding me to use them in some way. Although they are archival images, they are still Black models, Black figures dealing with Black female sexuality that I can work with without limitations. As an artist, sometimes you have to revisit old ideas to move forward to develop new ideas in your work.

Amber Jamilla Musser (Rail): I know some of your other work has not always been self-portraiture, but there is a clear connection to you and your life.

Thomas: It really goes back to the “Beauty of the Week.” I recognize and have a desire for the “everyday” Black woman’s beauty, and her owning her unapologetic sexual self. The women in my work are my cousins, aunts, friends, and lovers. They’re not cover girls or supermodels, but some might have had aspirations to be. The “Beauties of the Week” provided a platform, and empowered this sense of celebrating and cultivating our own prowess—our own beauty and sexuality—to see ourselves through our own Black bodies and not through the lens of an ideation of what beauty is supposed to be. There were all types of “Beauties of the Week.”

Rail: It’s interesting because it’s a fascinating version of intimacy too, because it’s about the image, but actually, you’re establishing your own specific—

Thomas: Yeah, the resource image is a starting point; me transforming the image into a collage is another. For me, there needs to be this level of excitement, and I’m using these images in the same way as if they were my sitters, by transforming the image in my collages and paintings.

Rail: And how do you decide what kinds of surfaces you’re adding, do you have a repertoire, or—

Thomas: It’s very intuitive. And I have a repertoire of materials, resources, and systems that I pull from; it’s not an A-to-Z regimented rule. It’s organic, it has some fundamental systems but it’s not rooted in must-haves or must-dos. And it’s not fundamentally like, “Oh, I have to do this before I do that,” but there are certain things I have to consider with the painting before using other materials. I map out and decide what elements I want to work using silk screen techniques, because some of the materials don’t interact well. The materials don’t necessarily guide or dictate how I’m going to make the painting, but it’s a method of mapping out the materials I’m going to use.

There are rules to how the materials can function. I do consider how my materials juxtapose and create the space, texture, and illusion I’m seeking. I’m interested in the collage of materials and how those materials are relating to one another, allowing the material to function on its own and also be a part of the image.

I enjoy working through systems and my materials. You have your subject and concept, but then you also have the materials that need to function. And I think oftentimes, integrating them is like a dance. You have to have them work together, in a way. What makes a painting for you? And oftentimes, you’re heavy on the conceptual or the theory, but then it lacks formal elements. I believe as an artist, that you really have to allow the materials to function as an important element, just as the subjectivity or the concept or theory of your work.

Mickalene Thomas, <em>Jet Blue #25</em>, 2021. Rhinestones, acrylic paint, chalk pastel, mixed media paper, and archival pigment prints on museum board mounted on dibond, 84 1/4 x 61 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.
Mickalene Thomas, Jet Blue #25, 2021. Rhinestones, acrylic paint, chalk pastel, mixed media paper, and archival pigment prints on museum board mounted on dibond, 84 1/4 x 61 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.

Rail: It’s striking to me how many of the materials you’re drawing from elicit a lot of play from the viewer, like the rhinestones—there are many different orientations that one can bring to what is there. I was surprised when I saw earlier versions of Jet Blue #25 (2021). I hadn’t seen you doing things like pixilation before.

Thomas: The pixilation started really functioning as a way of thinking about how we see the image, through photography, through a lens, but also, as a way of obscuring what’s revealed, what’s seen, what’s not seen, what’s covered up—whether it’s me doing it or thinking about the sitter saying what they’re allowing you to see—and who gives liberty to what’s respectable by subverting the gaze.

Rail: I was thinking about it especially in the context of centerfolds; it feels like you’re protecting the sitter in a way.

Thomas: They’re saying “I will reveal this much to you,” and then I’m also thinking of formal aspects of color and how the images move throughout, knowing that there’s a physical relationship with the viewer through this mosaic or pixilation that’s presented, because as you get closer, the image is obscured, but reveals itself when at a distance.

Also, new systems and technology have allowed us to see images through our phones. The resolution through CMYK and RGB, the hexadecimal, how we really perceive images; all of that plays such an important role in how we relate to images and how we relate to ourselves, because it’s all through these new devices, but when broken down it’s a mosaic of color, pixilation, CMYK, and RGB. I’m really interested in these ideas of how color and these codes that create color inform how we understand and see an image.

Rail: There’s already an interesting juxtaposition between the rhinestones and the built installations. So, in some ways, this pixilation speaks to the dominance of the screen as space.

Thomas: Exactly. It’s interesting because it is pixilation in one formal aspect versus Pointillism. To me, those are very similar, but exciting and separate modes of constructing and understanding how one works and sees. And when you think of someone like Seurat, using Pointillism, that’s a form of pixilation in a different way. And you think of Aboriginal artists; that’s a form of how they’re seeing the world with these microcosms of color that make up a whole. These ideas are very exciting—I enjoy all of these parts, it’s another form of collaging elements to create an image.

Rail: I'm really interested in Jet Blue #25, with all the negative space and the explicit constructiveness; it is definitely not that the model is naturally in the environment—

Thomas: But how the environment is consuming her and how she’s having to find her way around the environment. I often think about the environment when I’m constructing these and creating a collage; working my way through these archival images, thinking about and considering what the space was like for that person. Composition and poses are formally considered during my own photo shoots. Most of my props have meanings. In these archival photos, their props have meanings as well, such as the plant in front of her bush. The use of some of these mundane props are used to incite an additional allure to the image for desire.

Rail: So when you see the image, when you’re working with it, do you ask yourself, “Is this what I would like to invoke?”

Thomas: Sometimes. The idea behind this particular body of work being presented at Nathalie Obadia started by integrating Picasso, using his images of sitters as resources for my collages, to create this dialogue between these archival images. These are anonymous women in print, but not solely anonymous women, and I’m trying to give them a place of reference. So I decided to layer Picasso’s compositions, such as the Seated Woman from 1972—by only using the images that he created in the ’70s. I’m searching for this discourse with imagery, and then overlaying it with both images. Not that Picasso gives them agency; I’m giving them agency. But Picasso is a starting point for an art historical context.

Mickalene Thomas, <em>September 1977</em>, 2021. Rhinestones, glitter, and acrylic paint on canvas mounted on wood panel with mahogany frame, 110 x 92 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.
Mickalene Thomas, September 1977, 2021. Rhinestones, glitter, and acrylic paint on canvas mounted on wood panel with mahogany frame, 110 x 92 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.

Most of my collages are created in several ways. Some are digitally manipulated, or some are cut and collaged by my own hand. I enjoy using various tools to make my collages. I’m interested in how technology can inform a painting practice by implementing programs and tools like Photoshop in the same way I use a brush and paint to enhance or inform the image. These tools allow me to create the work by constructing and deconstructing the image, but also allow me to go back into it without having to always make marks directly on the surface.

Rail: What about scale? How do you make decisions about scale?

Thomas: Well, scale for me is always about the physical relationship to the viewer. I’m really interested in the viewer being confronted with this subjectivity, creating a dialogue of intimacy on various scales; whether they’re monumental or miniature paintings, I think there’s a way of having the viewer physically involved and move in a certain way. There’s a different way of moving and engaging with miniature works, versus monumental works. For me, they all require a physical movement and a way of interacting. And that’s very exciting to me, to think about the viewer’s body—but not only for the viewer, but also my body’s relationship and what I’m doing. My hope is that if I’m moving in a particular way when I’m in front of my work, then so will the viewer, and then they will feel some impact.

Images in magazines already exist in a particular scale and color. My aim is to transform and expand them out of that usual framework and allow the viewer to engage with them in a new way. I don’t know the narratives of these women, but they existed in a particular space—and now, with this new platform of agency. For me, it was very important to give them each the scale that they physically needed to reside in for the framework that I was making for them, so that’s why they’re all different sizes. Like this particular woman in September 1977 (2021). I felt as though she demanded to be monumental. She’s beautiful—seated on a throne, very regal. Regardless of the explicit nature of her bare breasts, she’s owning it. She’s empowered, commanding her space. I love it! She’s one of the largest paintings. She inspired me, the way she was seated in the archival image—with her legs crossed. She’s seated and very proud. I read the images and then create particular moments based on the image, what it is conveyed by being unapologetic.

Rail: It also makes me think about the relationship you’re creating with Picasso. A lot of the relationship is also about explicitly inserting Black women into that space, letting them take up space.

Thomas: Claiming and occupying the space and knowing that they are present. I’m always looking at my earlier work or images of how the women are posturing, like this image of Carrie Mae Weems or how I respond to the images of my mother shot in 2009. It’s the nature of her posture. There's this element of sexuality and beauty that I’m drawn to. I respond to women who have a strong sense of themselves, confidence, not being afraid of their own erotica.

Rail: I would definitely agree that that shines through. One of the things that I would love to talk about, are the “Resist” paintings.

Mickalene Thomas, <em>Resist</em>, 2017. Rhinestones, acrylic, gold leaf, and oil stick on canvas mounted on wood panel, 84 x 108 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.
Mickalene Thomas, Resist, 2017. Rhinestones, acrylic, gold leaf, and oil stick on canvas mounted on wood panel, 84 x 108 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.

Thomas: I approach the “Resist” paintings a little differently. Again, working with archival and found footage, using images that already exist in the world. My assistant and I collect a database of images, researching events from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Black Lives Matter. After I select the images, they are printed out, and then I'll create the collages.

It’s my response to what’s happening to brown and Black bodies—particularly with women—there are so many things to respond to socio-politically: the unrest, the cultural diplomacy, and the injustice that's happening to many Black people. This is a body of work that I started in 2017 for a show that I was invited to participate in called Figuring History with Kerry James Marshall and Robert Colescott. At the same time, there was the Rauschenberg show that was at MoMA. And there was something about that Rauschenberg exhibition that resonated with me; there was a sense of freedom he had with working with social and political images. Again, I thought about the freedoms of white male artists making whatever they please. And then I questioned myself, like, “Mickalene, make whatever you want, too. Just do it!” His show didn’t give me the license, it was already in my mind, but seeing his show pissed me off. And I responded and used the energy back in the studio, so I decided for Figuring History I would create one new painting as a rebuttal to what was happening. The curator, Catharina Manchanda, was excited about the idea.

It was the beginning of the “Resist” series, which I made with excitement and freedom. Many responded well to this new body of work. The process reminded me of how I worked when I was in undergrad. I enjoy working abstractly, using resource images that inform that process of how these paintings are made. All my work, despite looking different, comes together and works its way back to figuration. There are certain things that I started to pull and think again, “Well, I did it in this painting and now I can do it here,” and to me that’s very fulfilling. And it’s informing me as an artist, that it’s okay to step outside of your process or the formulas that you mastered, it’s good to shift and try new things in your work in order to expand and evolve. They just have various gestures—all the elements at some point come back into how I make my paintings of women.

Rail: One thing that I was struck by is that they are not images of violated Black people. But also, I think you could draw a line between this series in that they are all portraits of desire, and the “Resist” paintings which show another iteration of desire.

Mickalene Thomas, <em>Resist #2</em>, 2020. Rhinestones, glitter, acrylic paint and oil stick on canvas mounted on panel, 84 x 108 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.
Mickalene Thomas, Resist #2, 2020. Rhinestones, glitter, acrylic paint and oil stick on canvas mounted on panel, 84 x 108 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.

Thomas: Yes, it’s another iteration of desire. It’s another iteration of brown and Black bodies occupying space. Bringing in Picasso to begin this dialogue made sense to me, and I started thinking about how a lot of his paintings are about death, love, and war. I used Guernica (1937) and other imagery that he painted related to other wars and found the imagery to overlay with the archival photos.

Sometimes it’s a complicated process. I create a complexity with the images so that you don’t know how they are made; they are layered. The layering and nuance created with silkscreen processes allow for these complexities. Silkscreen itself is a form of painting. The process here is more rip-it-and-grip-it, as you would say. It’s not like making prints; it’s more like Andy Warhol’s one-pull method, it’s not about creating editions. We are using acrylic paint. It’s a raw, fast experimentation with the material and the image, and how it’s going to be conveyed on the surface.

Rail: That explains the layers of flatness that you then build on. They are a different kind of built environment.

Thomas: Using silkscreen as a tool is just another form of collage, just like editing a film by using different segments to create this narrative for the story. With silkscreen it’s the same, layering and collaging. It’s an incredible tool that I use in my work; I started integrating it as a part of my practice six years ago. Building upon my relationship with print publishers, I realized I could allow my photographic elements to be present in my paintings. And when I was making these prints with these other print publishing companies, it made sense for how I could make my work.

Rail: It feels like you’re doing a lot with print material, like newsprint, Jet, and then silkscreen, it’s really interesting, that kind of materiality of paper.

Thomas: Yeah, it’s transformed. And it’s really exciting for me; the more resources you have, the more tools you have to play and experiment with, then you never get tired of the endless prospect of what’s possible by exploring new ways of making paintings.

Check it out, I was going through my old notes, and I found my last crit from Yale back in 2012. The teachers that were there are Dick Lytle, Francis Barth, Robert Reed, Sam Messer, Rochelle Feinstein, Mel Bochner, and then me. Mel Bochner said something really great. Very excited about my new process. This is about me working with the rhinestones. He’s like, “These are remarkable every time I see them. I like them.” Then, Dick Lytle says, “So you made all this work, what are you going to do next?” And I say, “Those are secrets. I’m going to do portraits of myself, with painting and rhinestones.” And then he goes on to talk about Seurat, how Seurat uses paper to explore other ideas when his pointillist work was taking too much of his time. “Maybe you can do this?” And I just say, “I know, I will continue this laborious process. I enjoy sitting down and taking the time.” [Laughs]

Rail: That’s amazing. That's funny about the paper too, because you kinda—

Thomas: Exactly, I created it.

Rail: Yeah. I love that. I love it when you can see the moments when your past self was really very accurate. I don’t think I realized how much performance is a part of your process. Especially the images of yourself. But there’s also the way you’re talking about, thinking about, what would have been going through the models’ heads too, it’s—

Thomas: Yeah. I mean, I’m really interested in how my subjects—sitters and models—occupy the spaces that I’ve constructed, and specifically through photography, like the notion of photography, and its history and the truth or untruth of it, and how it’s manipulated, and how the lens has determined how we see ourselves and how we think of ourselves and our histories. And some of them are true, and some are false. The discovery of the lens as a third eye—the camera—we were able to use it to manipulate narratives on many levels, which allows us to escape reality. Then there’s television, a different mode or lens, a mode of construct of how we see ourselves and understand the world through mass media.

Rail: Photography is such a fraught history, especially for Black people. So just to reclaim both being in front of and behind …

Thomas: Yeah, exactly: very fraught. The artifice of the narrative. Who determines the reality? Images and stories are manipulated; they’re visual manipulations and then we believe that truth in the image. Many say don’t judge a book by its cover; I say don’t judge an image by what you see. [Laughs]

Rail: It makes me think also about what collage, then, really emphasizes—the possibility that there may be some gestures of authenticity, but there are also so many layers of construction around it.

Mickalene Thomas, <em>Madame Mama Bush</em>, 2006. C-Print, 22 x 25 1/2 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.
Mickalene Thomas, Madame Mama Bush, 2006. C-Print, 22 x 25 1/2 inches. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist.

Thomas: Yeah. And the construction is what I’m excited about. Looking at Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé’s photos, their use of documentary photography and portraiture, where it’s really about this new way of ownership and documenting your personal history in an image. I’m very excited about the nature of seeing yourself through images. And even if it was them in front of this drape and getting dressed up in clothes for them and props, it’s the importance of how they were going to present themselves and be seen in the world, how they want it to be seen. And how do you want to be seen in the world? This is your portrait. This is your moment.

Rail: It's striking to me how different this relationship is compared to what we think of as selfies, where everyone sort of looks the same.

Thomas: Or wanting to look the same because there’s the same airbrush tool, the same filters, the constructed pose. What you see is the repetition of a visual image, which makes you believe and understand that’s the language you must use. So it becomes a false narrative of conforming to what works or sells in order to succeed. Whether it’s as an influencer, or the artifice of how you want to be seen. There’s a language to understand the formality of how you should look. Those tools are constructed and designed for everyone to look analogous.

Rail: I feel like you’ve found moments where people are exploiting the gap of these languages.

Thomas: And shifting it. I’m interested in ways in which the languages or tools are challenged. That’s why I did not clean up any earlier photos—because that’s what was captured. There was this moment that was captured, there are certain elements in my photographs that are staged; you can see the fabric is frayed, or a nail is chipped. It gives you a little glimpse of a particular moment in time. One of the first photographs I took of myself while I was at Yale—I love that a nail fell off. Yeah, I just loved that moment and I didn’t notice until after I got my contact sheets and negatives.

Rail: Perhaps it's like a mark of really being in the moment, and not.

Thomas: Being in the moment just being a real person. Yeah, this is what happens. This is life.

Rail: It’s also about the unbotheredness of minor imperfections.

Thomas: And so that particular photograph allowed me to think about looking at imperfections in images and allowing moments to just happen. My mother was the first person to display nudity in my photographs. And when I’d photograph my mother in Madame Mama Bush (2012), I remember when she lifted her arm up; she’d brought her own négligée. She lifted her arm, and then her shirt opened when she moved, and I remember saying to her, “Mom, I'm about to take the picture, but your breast is exposed,” and she stated, “Just take the damn shot. Just take it!” I remember this kind of freedom of her giving me permission, that it’s okay to love your body. It’s beauty. And I just love her not caring. She’s in the moment. The joy of remembering that about her, and her working with me.


Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).


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SEPT 2021

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