Mickalene Thomas’s large-scale, sequin-bedecked panel paintings starring seductively posed black women speak as much to the history of the portrait as they do to contemporary bling, hip-hop culture and sexuality. Raised in the Newark, New Jersey, area by her mother and aunts, Thomas reinterprets feminine beauty from a female perspective. Take for instance Fancy This: Lovely Six Foota (2007) (below, left), currently on view in a group show at the Bronx Museum [“Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with 21 Contemporary Artists,” through May 29], in which a voluptuous black woman reclines in a firm but sexualized pose, her eyes turned coyly from the viewer. Amid a sea of illustrated pillows and wood panels, Thomas’s subject appears to be a caricature of a brassy, stylized exoticism, her body rendered in a relatively matte painted finish, while the creases in her knee-high boots and outline of her open blouse are executed in sequins.
Over the next six months, the in-demand 39-year-old Brooklyn-based artist will participate in a 13 shows, ranging in location from Iowa to Tokyo. Thomas is included in the “Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960” exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Feb. 20. Here we discuss how her photography has evolved from preparatory study to the final picture:
MADISON MOORE: What was it like going to art school in Brooklyn in the ’90s?
MICKALENE THOMAS: Being at Pratt was a new phenomenon because you’re in New York, not Manhattan, but you’re still in Brooklyn, which has its own history. And you’re in an affluent black neighborhood. When I started at Pratt, Spike Lee had his 40 Acres and A Mule studios down the street. You’d see Rosie Perez walking around going to Mike’s Coffee Shop. So it was this black bohemian…
MOORE: Creative hub.
THOMAS: Yeah, a creative hub. And that was exciting, [laughs] to be here in ’95 and walk to Pratt’s campus and see Spike Lee filming a movie.
MOORE: After Pratt you found yourself at Yale in the MFA program.
THOMAS: Yale was the only school I actually ended up applying to. When I decided to go to art school, it wasn’t necessarily something I thought I needed. No one talked about graduate school when I was an undergrad. I went on to a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and that transition from Yale to the Studio Museum, that was the real beginning of my professional career. Exposure to people like Thelma Golden and Christine Kim was very new, because while I was at Yale I didn’t have gallery people talking to me about my work.
MOORE: You’re about to show in “Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. People are most familiar with your rhinestone paintings. How does your process triangulate among photography, collage and painting?
THOMAS: That all started-working with nontraditional materials-when I was an undergrad. But once I got to Yale I put some of those things on the back burner because I really wanted to just paint. I stopped working with collage and fabrics and craft materials, because I just wanted to show them that I could paint [laughs]. But I was advised to take a photo class with David Hilliard, and he encouraged us to do personal documentary photographs. That led me to do a series of photographs with my mother. I started using photography more as a tool or resource–not necessarily to create a body of work.
MOORE: Did you keep them as a document of that period of learning?
THOMAS: Yeah, so they were really crappily taken. I didn’t think about the medium at that time. And sometimes I used a disposable camera or a point and shoot because they were always just intended to be resources for my paintings.
MOORE: When did you start to look at them as more than documents?
THOMAS: A good photo friend who came to my studio was looking at some of my photo resources and he said, “I want that image. The way you shot your mother, it’s not just a resource. Even if you’re not looking at photography in that way, you’re taking really great photographs.” So that’s when I decided to take the material and really think about the type of film I would use and started to consider composition.
MOORE: Well, I think one of the exciting things about your work is the sense of vibrancy. It’s almost like I can hear soul music when I look at your work. Maybe Betty Davis or…
THOMAS: Yeah, well, it is-a lot of titles are from Betty Davis! I used to listen to a lot of music in my studio-all the time. But as far as the music that interplays with my work, what I’ve done and still do is keep a lyric book and song title. The material typically comes from Eartha Kitt, Betty Davis, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston…
MOORE: Chosen because they are divas?
THOMAS: Yeah, all of my favorite female heroines in music. After the painting’s made, I think about the painting and peruse my song titles. And so that’s how that works, and I’m glad you said Betty Davis because a lot of people don’t know that most of them are from Betty Davis.
MOORE: Oh, Betty Davis was bad!
THOMAS: She was very bad [laughs]. She’s the queen of funk and she has sort of a nasty mouth. And it’s just my poetic way of flipping what the viewer’s seeing and what the subject or the model is saying to the viewer-having a dialogue. It’s this funny metaphor in the work that not everyone can get, but that’s okay. It’s exciting when people do notice those things.
MOORE: You’ve done a portrait of Naomi Campbell. How do you see your work critiquing or bolstering black women in popular culture?
THOMAS: I’m loosely a product of hip-hop, and a lot of the images in that genre of women are very negative. Take Lil’ Kim: She was doing what she was doing, but how much of that is her, and how much of that is her as a product of genre? I wanted to take control of my responsibility and how I could present something new.
MOORE: So how do black women respond to your work?
THOMAS: I think some still have issues when they see a breast, but I tell them when I photograph my models I want them to feel their sexy selves. If they’re revealing to me their sexy selves by showing a little cleavage, then for me that is powerful. There’s a greater power and charisma when a woman is aware of her sexual prowess when it’s not necessarily about victimization or someone else’s pleasure but her own feeling about her own body, and understanding and loving herself.
ABOVE: LE DEJEUNER SUR L’HERBE: LES TROIS FEMMES NOIRES. COURTESY LEHMANN MAUPIN AND MICKALENE THOMAS.