RECONSTRUCTING THE GLITTERING FEMALE GAZE
A Conversation with Revolutionary Artist MICKALENE THOMAS
By Lori Zimmer
At 8:30 A.M. one Friday morning, up and out earlier than I’ve been in years, I sat around the meeting room at AXA Equitable of all places. Over omelettes and coffee, I was among thirty or so of New York’s finest art ladies, ranging from mid-twenties non-profit leaders to gallery owners, to seasoned industry gems that make up Art Table. Some of us calling in late to work, we were all gathered together for one reason: to hear Mickalene Thomas speak about her work.
Like the magpie that I am, I was initially attracted to Mickalene’s sparkly, colorful pieces from afar, glittering in my periphery at the Brooklyn Museum. When I then settled in and examined her work, I became even more entranced and impressed. I’ve always been a little obsessed with the whole female gaze debacle.True, it is beyond old news by now, but the day in 1863 that Manet painted Olympia’s eyes to confront, rather than cajole, the viewer–not to mention, he painted her as a prostitute rather than a goddess–everything started to change; I’ve always admired that. But Mickalene makes the subject exciting and new again, infusing the aforementioned sparkles, rich patterns from her travels and childhood, and seasoning it with her personal perspective of being a black lesbian artist.
Mickalene is one of those artists that is as eloquent with her words as she is with her art. I’ve been to many an artist talk, where you wish the curator would just let the poor artist go home and take center stage. But over the course of several cups of coffee, and definitely way more work time than I thought I’d miss, Mickalene spoke candidly about being a female black artist, her experience with MoMA, and her magical residence in Monet’s garden. Both the crow and the art nerd in me fell in love.
Lori Zimmer: The women in your pieces are confident and powerful in their poses, their expressions, and their gaze, which you juxtapose with color, pattern, and bling. What is the relation between your subject and the rich materials you make them with?
Mickalene Thomas: In portraiture, you are always dealing with surface–the presentation of the sitter. As the artist, I use surface-level clues as indicators of what lies beneath the surface of the individual. With my portraits, I seek to capture and translate a moment that occurs while photographing the model that is the exact moment when I sense her satisfaction of taking on a role and representing some aspect of her character through that role. There is an element of artifice and performance in this moment that I emphasize in the painting with my use of rhinestones and enamel. Over time though, the rhinestones have become another of the tools I employ to create a compelling image. My use of them originated in a very specific way but has now expanded to encompass formal concerns of texture and color as I create any of my paintings; portraits, still lifes, or landscapes. I think part of my insistence on the surface and materials stems from my awareness that I am creating art objects, not just images and representations of women and landscapes. I am aware that the work I create needs to be compelling on a lot of different levels.
LZ: What inspires the eclectic patterns you use in your collage pieces?
MT: Pattern has been an important part of my work for a very long time–I use it to create rhythm and dissonance in the work as well as to reference an array of influences and sources. Originally, I was thinking of the domestic spaces from my childhood with their recovered furniture, clashing patterns and wood panelling. Other artists, such as the Malian photographer Malick Sidebé and Henrí Matisse, are also a major influence in my use of pattern.
LZ: What has been the most important moment in your career thus far?
MT: I don’t think I can identify a particularly important moment above any others. The most important moment always seems to be the present one, which I try to spend in my studio, making my work.
LZ: “Le Dejeuner sur L’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires” has taken your work out of the art world/museum context, and instead offers its powerful image to the general public. Has this opportunity to reach a new audience inspired you?
MT: I have always wanted my work to speak to a broad audience and I am thrilled that I have had the opportunity to have a painting on view, from the street, for over a year now!
LZ: You recently spent a residency in Monet’s garden and house, which sounds so incredibly fantastic. Do you feel closer to Monet after your experience? What was it like to work and wander where he did?
MT: Amazing; the whole experience of being in the French countryside for an entire summer and having free reign in Monet’s gardens was absolutely incredible. I had the opportunity to photograph Monet’s home and, of course, gardens and it was so exciting for me to contend with such picturesque images, finding a way to make them my own.
LZ: Your wife, Carmen McLeod, is also an artist. Does your relationship extend into each other’s work?
MT: We have a very close relationship that extends into our studios and a serious critical dialogue. It’s funny though, we didn’t realize just how much we extend into one another’s work until we were installing Carmen’s show at CRG in September; we realized that she had included five portraits of me in her show and that I had included my first portraits of her in my show! It was silly that we hadn’t realized until the installation date what we had done, but it just speaks to the closeness of our working relationship.
Mickalene Thomas is an artist represented by Lehmann Maupin in New York.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography by Coco Alexander
Design by Marie Havens
Mickalene Thomas, in her studio, NYC, 2011, Photography by Coco Alexander