New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas, best known for her elaborate paintings, introduces a complex vision of what it means to be a woman. Her mixed media works, comprised of rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel, stem from her study of art history and the classical genres of landscape, portraiture, and still life. Inspired by a number of sources, including Matisse, Manet, Bearden, and the 19th Century Hudson River School, she expands the common definitions of beauty, infusing pop art and popular culture, exploring notions of beauty from a contemporary perspective. Mickalene is represented by Lehmann Maupin in New York City, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
How has having a child influenced you and your work? You recently started using oil sticks and drippings, which has an almost childlike feel.
Exactly. I think having a child right now is allowing me to remember the kid in me, to maintain and hold onto a youthful spirit, not be so rigid and full of this regiment: it has to be like this and this is the system. I want to break my own system. I think that’s what I’m interested in.
What do you see your role being, besides the director?
Eventually, not only the director, but also the cinematographer, the DP - behind the camera. That’s something where my aesthetic could really come through. Not just with how the parts are moving within that particular scene, but how the lens is capturing those moments of what’s happening, what you see, and the composition of it. I find people like Julian Schnabel and Steven McQueen are fantastic as visual artists.
Who else? This is interesting.
Cindy Sherman — her images inspire people to make work in various ways by using themselves — per-formatively and photographically. As far as writers, Alice Walker. As far as how people dress, I would love to look like Amelia Earhart.
You just did something for W?
Yes, with Jessica Chastain.
I think she is gorgeous, but she is very hard to photograph. Most people do not make her look good. You really got her.
I had a friend, one of the producers of my documentary, and I never told her I was photographing Jessica Chastain. I ran into [the friend] in Miami. She saw the cover there and said, “Oh, she looks like Michelle Pfeiffer from Scarface.” We looked over at each other and I said, “Well, you got it! That’s exactly what I was making her look like. Scarface.” That’s what the inspiration came from. I decided to work within a familiar territory. [I was] thinking about the 70s, the experience, what sort of character I want her to portray. So I pulled up all these images of Michelle Pfeiffer and had the makeup artist and hair styl- ist really work with that. I said to Jessica: “You’re Michelle Pfeiffer. You’re in Scarface. You’re living this life.” We had fun with that.
Many of your photographs feature black women. After photographing Jessica Chastain, would you ever think of doing a series on white women? Do black women inspire you more than white women — physically?
It’s interesting that there are lots of contradictions. I married a white woman. On one hand, there’s this woman painting her desires of black women and she ends up marrying a white woman. I like women. I actually photograph a lot of white women. I have. I’ve done several commissions. One day there will be a show of Mickalene Thomas and all the white women she has painted, most of them big commissions. Jessica [Chastain] is the first public one.
You’re associated with feminist black culture. We talked about you breaking patterns. Do you feel you need to stay close to that?
No. I’m actually really happy for the opportunity to photograph Jessica, because what I think it has done is given me more freedom to photograph whoever I want. I can paint whomever I want. I felt like I was allowing myself this safety net of just staying here, and this wasn’t because of what was expected of me within the art market. I do want to do a series of white women, but women who are completely unexpected.
One of the things that attracted me to your paintings, of course, is the “bling” factor. I love it. Does bling equal black or black equal bling? Can you speak to that?
Bling has a history. Rococo, that’s bling. Look at Byzantine [art]. Bling has a history . . . These notions of flamboyancy have a historical place in our world. Are black people known to be peacocks? [Laughs] Some, but not always. I actually resent that the viewer has decided not to look beyond the material and only find relationships with ‘bling equals black equals hip-hop’, because, for me, that has put me in a category and has discredited where I’ve come from, how I’m educated, and why I’m working with certain materials. I feel like they are lazy . . . Actually, one of the reasons I initially started working with the rhinestones is because I was interested in pointillism. I was looking at a lot of French Impressionism. I was working out my ideas through Seurat. I latched onto aboriginal art. I’ve always worked with nontraditional materials — when I was in undergrad and graduate school, I liked craft material, and the rhinestones seemed to express this high and low art in a pointillist way.
READ MORE ABOUT MICKALENE THOMAS IN MUSÉE ISSUE 5: VOLUME 1
Interview by Andrea Blanch
Photograph of Mickalene Thomas by Andrea Blanch
All other photographs courtesy of the artist, Mickalene Thomas and W Magazine