Up Close and Personal with Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas sits in a reconstruction of the studio that features in many of her paintings, at Henry Art Gallery. Photo by Margo Vansynghel.

“When I see the Mona Lisa and those other famous paintings, I always wonder: Who is she? Where does she come from? What’s her life like?” says New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas, standing near an ornate wood-paneled living room—a reconstruction of her studio—filled to the brink with patch-worked furniture and photos of her mother. The artist has always tried to really see her subjects.  

Thomas became famous in the art world by asking such questions, specifically about bodies like hers—Black, female—in her dazzling, textured paintings, which are a composite of many things: a celebration of Black beauty and femininity, a reclaiming of space, and a conceptual adventure testing the boundaries of artifice, truth, framing and representation.

Her photography and video work, however, are lesser known. MUSE: Mickalene Thomas Photographs, a kaleidoscopic exhibition opening Saturday at the Henry Art Museum, aims to change that.

Malick Sidibé’s “Baptême,” 2002.

Based on a 2016 exhibition by Aperture Foundation, the show traces Thomas’ photographic work from the late 1990s to today. It also zooms in on the photographic heroes and heroines who’ve shaped her artistic process, such as LaToya Ruby Frazier, Deanna Lawson and Malick Sidibé. A  centerpiece of the show is a new diptych of screening rooms with video art. In one, visitors find a profoundly intimate 2- and 4-channel video of Thomas and her partner, in the other a selection of video art by other artists curated by the artist.

Video and photography are an indispensable part of an ever-expanding body of Thomas’ work, which now also includes upholstering furniture for her installations, as the artist explained when we met the day before the show’s opening. “I’ve also recently been doing more fashion photography. I did shoots for W Magazine and for Garage Magazine,” she says.  

How does it feel to come back to fashion photography that way, as it has been a major influence on your work?
Its really exciting. Fashion has always been important to me because fashion is how we, as African-Americans and more generally as Americans, express ourselves culturally. I look at fashion photography specifically through the lens of 1970s Black is Beautiful-era photography. The afro became an important signifier, as an expression of beauty, not conforming to a construct of having to straighten your hair. It was, for Black women, a very needed expression of redefining their own beauty.  

Mickalene Thomas’ “Quanikah Goes Up,” 2001/2005.

You and your mom also worked as fashion models, right?
My mother modeled a lot in the ’70s and ’80s—for magazines, but she also did many runway shows and even lived in Paris for a little bit. When I was younger, I’d model shows with her. That environment, seeing my mom and her friends, has influenced my work. The glamour of it, yes, but also the sort of ugly side of how beauty is this construct that can sort of shape you.  

When did you pick up the camera yourself?
During my MFA at Yale. The first year, they would evaluate all the students by putting a letter in your mailbox with a class the faculty suggested you take. The feeling was that if you got one of those letters, you were not doing so well. [laughs] I was instructed to take a photography class with David Hilliard, who was addressing his coming out as a queer man in his work and photographing his father. This class was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. 

How so?
One of the first things David Hilliard encouraged us to do was to photograph whoever it was in our life that we had difficulty talking to, had issues about or were estranged from. That happened to be my mother at that time. I went back to New Jersey to photograph her. I started using disposable cameras because I couldnt afford a camera. That was the beginning for me to start to look at myself and Black bodies. I started asking women that I met to come to my studio to be photographed, and starting photographing myself a lot. 

Mickalene Thomas’ “La leçon d’amour,” 2008.

It was personal.
There’s a fallacy to think that art is not personal. Art is an extension of yourself. Even as a white male artist, if you are thinking theoretically, make conceptual art, it’s based on experience and education and therefore it comes from a personal place. 

Initially, photography was a way to capture your elaborate staging for your paintings. When did you realize that photos were not just secondaryto your paintings?
I was very apprehensive about showing my photos for a long time. It changed six, eight years ago, when I went from using disposable cameras to 35mm cameras, and later to medium and large format cameras. It was a moment to slow down the same way you do with painting. The device of the camera has helped me to accept photography as a separately important element of my work. 

Are you a painter who works with photography or an artist who works with painting and photography?
A painter who works with photography. Everything I do, whether its installation, photography or sculpture comes through a painting lens. I’ve just learned to accept that there are definitely things that I can’t do in painting that I can do in photography. 

Such as?
Painting doesn’t have the same relationship with truth. Because photos are familiar, people think that photography speaks to some type of truth. In painting, there’s always a level of fantasy. People often ask me if my subjects are real people. With photography, we’d just accept that. Which is really exciting conceptually, in relation to the notions around the Black body. Now I’m bringing more photographic elements to my paintings, through silk screen processes, so that you can see that these are real women in my paintings.

MUSE: Mickalene Thomas Photographs opens this weekend at Henry Art Gallery and runs through Sept. 30.