"February 1977 , "2019. Credit ... Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas
Thomas, a master of naked form and erotic suggestion, had obscured the right breast of the woman with gray scale pixel blobse, but the way the woman sat, with her knee pulled close to her left breast, suggested at most a B cup. The rounding of the top of the thigh of her other leg, which extended towards the viewer, was plump and familiar; those thighs probably must have negotiated as she walked. A large curve of light brown flesh interrupted the lower quadrant of the painting - presumably the underside of the opposite thigh, enlarged and layered where a shin should have been. This zoomed-in segment not only highlighted the part of the model 's body that she could have been complimented on the mos t (by black people, at least) but also highlighted Thomas' own gaze, the characteristic that elicited the attention of the artist.
Over the past two decades, 50-year-old Thomas has been acclaimed for several creative styles. There are his photographs, usually staged in instaMeticulously designed llations. Then there are the collages that she makes, most often from her photographs, in which the proportions can be distorted, the eyes cut out and replaced, the entire bodies transformed. Finally, the paintings, each of which can take a photo or a collage as a reference. Many artists take reference photos for their paintings, but few have embarked on photography in such a way that the photos will have artistic reputation and commercial viability.
I would say that we are on the cusp of an even wider appreciation of Thomas 'genius with craftsmanship - a boost both by the world's growing appreciation for the work of artists. black and by Thomas's own clairvoyant vision. But in this gallery in Paris, it was her loving, vigorous and multifaceted look at the black female form that prompted me to text a photo.from a sexy painting to my mom. No context needed. We knew what we had.
It took me a whole day to ask Thomas about his interest in breasts, despite the fact that her studio was full of images of topless women. We were at a waterfront restaurant in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, and she was sitting with her back to the East River, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges on either side of her. When Thomas speaks, we rarely get the impression that she hasn't thought about a question before, that she hasn't already come up with a convincing answer, but the breasts, in our conversations, were an exception. "I think it's such a freedom to see women's breasts outside, you know? She said." Because we have to keep them covered all the time. And I love the makeup to display breasts in my work. She compared her interest toa concern of artist Barkley L. Hendricks, whose paintings exemplify a lasting kind of cool noir. Hendricks was a guy with the feet; Thomas remembered him taking pictures of women's shoes at parties. “Women and shoes,” he once told her. "Make sure you do it right in your paintings.
Breasts can tell you things about a woman - if she's had children, if her weight fluctuated, if she preferred to wear a bra. Bare breasts are also political; I thought of women in places like Nigeria and South Africa who, since colonial times, have used topless protest to shame their oppressors. European and African art has featured the nude female form for centuries, but which fwas the most research, and under what circumstances? In much of Thomas' work, black women, many of whom are homosexual, carry their bodies for her, a homosexual black woman. Her performances have helped her become a formidable player in the art world, whose works sell for in the seven figures at auction.
Thomas ordered a matcha, lamenting that the turmeric latte had been abandoned. She seemed relaxed for someone under several deadlines. She was committed to spending this fall exhibiting new works, in four different cities around the world, with the Levy Gorvy gallery. There was still some progress to be made on several of the parts and shrink windows for international shipping. A world tour like this is rare, one of the founders of the gallery, Dominique Levy, told me. This is a testament to Thomas' confidence in the fact thate this happens. Before the start of the pandemic, Levy, an early collector of Thomas's work, reached out to her about a single show in New York City. That conversation evolved into a show in New York, then another in London, then Paris, then Hong Kong - a sequel called "Mickalene Thomas: Beyond the Pleasure Principle". With the world locked in and Thomas and his family staying at home in Connecticut, she and her production manager, Jeff Vreeland, spent time figuring out how to adapt their process to work in two different locations, as opposed to being together at Thomas 's Brooklyn studio. Then Thomas simply proceeded to create the art as if the circumstances were going to happen in his favor. Image Thomas at work in his studio. Credit ... Widline Cadet for Hfrance.fr
The New York stage opened in September on three floors of the Upper East Side gallery by Levy Gorvy, presenting work being finalized when I met Thomas in August. The thought of her Jet Beauties crossing the globe to be admired delighted me. Unlike the photos Thomas shoots herself, the Beauties had an original context and purpose, which was to titillate predominantly male consumers. "We did a lot of research to try to find out who these women were, and there's, like, nothing," Thomas told me. In the absence of biographical information, she engaged with what they represented as artefacts of black culture and ideals of black beauty and desire.
Thomas 's approach to pleasure, which underlies much of his work, is more complex than you might think. It ' s not just a matter of shifting the gaze of one pair of eyeballs to another. It's about shifting the idea of what feels good, of what looks good, to an idea in which the desire of queer black women may be the baseline, not an aberration. In the fine art world, "we don 't even have a language to communicate about pleasure like that ", m ' Thomas's friend Xaviera Simmons, conceptual and visual artist said. "A lot of people want to get around that, instead of going in and feeling the heartbeat of what it is.
In "Rumble", a collage that Thomas made in 2005, two female figures dressed in floral prints fight, although only the afroed head of one. woman can be seen. She bites her knee - realemblematically that of his adversary, but perhaps his own; the limbs are a confusing yet suggestive tangle - and wraps one leg around his opponent's leg, pinning him down. The headless woman, losing this fight, has purple skin. It is the knee bite that seems the most subversive; the afroed woman looks triumphant, hungry, ready to devour. Other works in the series, "Brawlin 'Spitfire ", feature women whose facial expressions oscillate between agony and ecstasy, teeth bared or biting again - an exploration of pleasure in which the notions of domination and submission, of tenderness and strength, are rendered useless. . Image " Rumble ", 2005. Credit ... With the kindpermission of Mickalene Thomas
The title of Thomas' new series refers to Freud, whose principle of pleasure - which postulates that humans tend to avoid pain and focus on meeting the heir's needs - fuels the id, that part of the psyche that, among other things, is the source of our libido. "There is a tremendous form of play in Mickalene's work," Carrie Mae Weems, the famous photographer Thomas names as the catalyst for his decision to pursue the art, told me. "And yet, they're deadly serious. " The show 's title also nods to Janet Jackson's 1987 hit, which opens with the following line: "You might think that I'm crazy, but I'm serious / You better know by now. "Of course.
The first time Thomas felt really comfortable photographing nudity for her job, that was when she photographed her mother in the mid-years. Sandra Bush, who died in 2012, wore a red negligee with a deep neckline and a wide black belt. At one point, she raised her hand for a pose, inadvertently releasing a nipple in the process. "I went to fix it, and she said, " Girl, let it be ", Thomas told me. "'Just take the picture re. '" Thomas said it 's like Bush' gives me permission - that everything is fine, that too is okay.
Bush - nicknamed Mama Bush in Thomas 'prolific artistic research on her - was tall, glamorous, and body aware like a model born, despite the fact that a career in this profession eluded him. The photograph "Madame Mama Bush" and the painting by Thomas "Portrait of Madame Mama Bush# 1 ", each suggest a timeless beauty without obscuring the impact of time. The way her breasts flatten and expand, the scars hollowing out her shins, all illuminated by the glow of moisturizer - Thomas' models are often glowing - all enhance her aura of confident sensuality.
For Thomas, who came out at 16 to his grandmother, and soon after to his mother, Bush was the one of the primary sources of her interest and anxiety for femininity, glamor and desirability. Girls take the measure of their mothers, then consider their own beauty, their own future. "I don't look like him anymore, " Thomas told me. "But when I was younger, I didn't. " Growing up in Camden, New Jersey, she had a cousin who preferred her mother better, and when the three of them were dating, people confused who belonged to whom. How to fight ame who does not reflect your very first mirror, your mother? Image “Lounging, Standing, Watching”, with Thomas's mom, Sandra Bush, 2003. Credit ... Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas
Thomas was born in 1971, during the Black Arts and Black Power movements and Pan-Africanism and the rise of Blaxploitation films and disco. She grew up in the era of crack and the rise of neoliberalism. These historical touchpoints, when black women were called queens of a dubious variety (Nubian queen, disco queen, wellness queen), permeate her work. She has an older brother and three younger half-brothers, children of her father,with whom she has no relationship. "He's a stranger," she told me with finality. "I don't want a stranger in my life. " But his father's mother was one of Thomas 'favorite people growing up, a constant source of support that greeted Thomas when Sandra Bush struggled with addiction. During the time Thomas was living with his mother, they stayed in northern New Jersey, in East Orange - not far from Camden for miles, but another world in terms of what seemed possible. "We would come back with all these gifts and stories," Thomas recalls, and her cousins were running to the car, eager to see what she had brought or learned from living so close to New York.
"Camden is not an easy place to live," Thomas, who calls himself Mickey with his friends and family, told me. . "I took the first opportunity to go out without hesitation. " She gave upborn high school at 17 and followed a girlfriend home to Portland, Oregon. The girlfriend was five years older than herself and Filipina; they met while they were working in a restaurant, where Thomas was occupying tables and the girlfriend was a hostess. In Portland, they were living with the girlfriend's parents - “we were on the DL,” Thomas said with a laugh - and Thomas graduated from high school. She initially thought she wanted to pursue art therapy, or maybe home decorating, but a fateful vision in the early 1990s of Carrie Mae Weems' "Kitchen Table Series" - in which Weems plays and plays with different roles of black femininity in the traditional genre. family space - put it on the way to the school of fine arts. She returned to the East Coast and signed up at Pratt for her B.F.A. There was also another reason to back down: she was ready, she said, "tonot being in conversations and when people were talking about family, that I didn 't talk about it ”. Being closer to home meant maybe she could work on her relationship with her mother.
Although she was inspired by Weems , Thomas first focused on painting and abstracting. It was a course requirement for his M.F.A. to Yale who put her behind the camera, where she started photographing Mama Bush. It helped bring them together. Thomas also used the camera to investigate herself. A series of paintings and photos in which she appears as Quanikah, a hyper-female alter ego, shows her trying out ways of being: type Mary J. Blige, with a blonde wig; a round girl with a braided square; a little girl with long acrylic nails and flower clips in her hair. It was a performance experience in the tradition of Weems and Cindy Sherman,but it was also the start of what would become a long conversation about adornment, presentation and perception.
In another series of paintings, Thomas used his own body as a model. This B began with "Origin of the universe, part 1 ", a piece referring to Gustave Courbet's famous 1866 painting "L 'Origin of the world ", a study of the vulva and the bottom torso of a model. Unlike the original, Thomas's figure has brown skin, but his goal wasn't just to swap one shade for another. She applied rhinestones where the pubic hair was and along the folds and crevices of the vulva and inner thighs, so the stones accumulate and shine on the crumpled sheets below - almost like stars, but also suggesting a fluid. Despite all its glares, this is an altogether more realistic examination of the female anatomy par relation to desire, in part because it feels less tidy, its contours less controlled.
Historically, the use of materials like rhinestones in fine art was considered unsophisticated. Thomas made them his signature by taking them seriously. "When you think of someone like Caravaggio or Hopper, you think of light," she said. "So for me, what is a light source? I am playing with a different type of light source. Its use of handcrafted materials for their sheen reminds me of African American quilts, like the ones made famous by quilts from Gee 's Bend, Alabama, which use scraps of fabric for a striking textural effect. It also reminds me of my mom and aunts, who all loved to glow when going out for the night - a nod to another kind of mastery. Image Detail of a work in progress. Credit ... Widline Cadet for Hfrance.fr Image Boxes of Swarovski crystal rhinestones in Thomas 'workshop. Credit ... Widline Cadet for Le Hfrance.fr
"Elle has always been very good at taking humble materials and imbuing them with that kind of nobility, ”artist Kehinde Wiley, her former Yale classmate and close friend, told me. “And part of that has to do with the confident nerve that goes with it. You know i don't knowif it's cheeky or arrogant, but it's that kind of attitude that comes from knowing your own worth.
Thomas' studio is a bright space with an admirable area on the northern edge -is from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, the same neighborhood where she lives. When I first met her there it was 8 a.m. and her 9 year old daughter Junya was finishing a bagel with pink cream cheese before leaving for summer camp . At the same time, Thomas 'companion and muse, Racquel Chevremont, saw her two children from a previous marriage leave for the day from Manhattan, where she lives during the week. Thomas wore black Maison Margiela / Reebok collaboration sneakers and layers of black clothing in different textures - loose pleated pants, a sculpted neoprene top, a nylon hat over his shoulders, the sides faded. The somTotal me was a look she described to me as "mostly androgynous".
Thomas started to walk around the studio. It was, on the surface, to show me around, but I quickly learned that she is a mover, itinerant in her approach to creating art and managing her studio team. "It 's almost like a dance, I think," she said. "Or a choreographer, where you do something and then you engage and then you step back. " The Newer Jet Beauties - 2021 meditations on work that I 've seen in Paris - hung on the walls at different stages. Thomas flipped through booklets that showed the progress on each piece, from mostly white canvases to near completion. Image Thomas' studio in the quartier from Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. Credit ... Widline Cadet for Hfrance.fr
Thomas considers himself a painter, but sometimes it's hard to tell what kind of work is which - elements of painting and collage, in particular, blend into each other. It 's no accident. Recently Thomas has been thinking about how it can cloud our understanding of what makes a painting. "I think of Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, at the same time while thinking of Picasso, Matisse and Andy Warhol and all these different ways they painted, and how you can fit them in," she said From a distance, the paintings seemed layered, as if you could run your hand through them and feel the textures of different applied pieces, like a collage; in reality, the paintings.elements are all on the same painted plane.
This is an innovative game, but it is also a testament to Thomas' deliberate thinking regarding both her subjects and the materials she uses. You can see this deliberation in Thomas' approach to representing his partner, Chevremont - a former model turned collector and curator who has made her name in the art world on acquisition committees. for institutions like the Studio Museum and by organizing exhibitions to bridge the gap between Collectors and emerging black artists. Thomas first offered to photograph Chevremont at the end of another shoot, while the setup was still in place and the hair and makeup were still there. Their relationship was so new then that it was not common knowledge. It would take several years of photo shoots before Thomas Chevremont comb; instead, she would make collages, which - unlike your paintings, whose scale and complexity usually require help - Thomas creates on his own. between them she didn't share them; she "wanted to have them for me for a while," she told me. Painting was also another level of interpretation - giving Chevremont back to it. 'oil or acrylic would have meant she was ready to communicate to others how she really saw Chevremont.
Before her recent shift to Archival footage, Thomas was known for the way his works were in conversation with, and at times in opposition to, European mainstays like Courbet and Manet. Drawing inspiration from sources like Jet forces critics to put aside these more familiar comparisons. Weems sees this new body of work as Thomas's statement that "you don't 'You don't need European modernism to build your practice; you can create your practice wherever you live. " Image "Sleep: Two Black Women, " 2012. Credit ... Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas
Jet images are closer to pop culture consciousness and therefore might risk appearing too familiar, with little room for discovery. In practice, it is the other way around which is true. The Thomas exhibition in New York and the "Everrrything " exhibition by artist Lorna Simpson, which is currently taking place at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles, used the pine calendars. up from Jet, and I counted over five of the same arch beautiesives exposed. But their approaches
Where the Simpson collage feels devoted to the 1970s archival source - shag rugs, animal print - painting model by Thomas, "June 1977 ", semble live several times at a time. There is a digital age pixelation on the potted plant; a black and white nature print in the background that suggests an older landscape; brightly painted signs that suggest pop art or cartoons; then, taking us back to the 70s, a half-painted wood grain quality Image 'June 1977, ' 2021 Credit ... Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas
The subject can bee a trap; wanting to focus on what a work of art represents at the expense of how it was created obscures the peculiar and idiosyncratic creative epiphanies that gave birth to the work. As the depth and breadth of the work of more black artists becomes widely celebrated, it may become impossible for critics to be so singularly drawn to what, the if applicable, a work of a black artist versus darkness in the broad sense.
Over the past decade, Thomas' profile has grown significantly. There was his 2012 solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, which looked like a mid-career retrospective, no matter how young he was at the time. There was the shoot with Solange Knowles, and there was “Better Days,” her splashy multi-day immersive installation in Bâthe in Switzerland. She created a cover image for Time magazine, a tribute collage to transgender rights activist Marsha P. Johnson. Thomas embarked on a career as a fashion photographer, photographing celebrities like Jessica Chastain, Cardi B and Barry Jenkins (for a profile I wrote for this magazine). She's got enough influence in pop culture to have received a shout out in a song by rapper Roots r Black Thought ("I'm a stroke of genius like Mickalene Thomas"). His joint birthday parties with artist Derrick Adams are known to the prominent art figures who attend. And she's broken her own auction records time and time again - most recently with the paint "Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit ", in which she alternates heavy application of paint with flat for a striking effect. . In it, Chevremont wears purple and turquoise open heels, heels that Thomas painted with Barkley Hendricks in mind. The coin sold for $ 1.83 million. Image " Reclining racquel wearing purple jumpsuit ", 2016. Credit. .. Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas
Thomas a with clear eyes on the place she would like to live in the art world, so much so that she told me that there was a number that she hopes to reach for her work at auction. She is candid about the why: so that she can continue to support her practice in the studio and so that she can get to a place where she doesn't have to create so many pieces of art each time. year. Blame my own brainwashingliterary world, but for a second, I was surprised that she took her eyes off so bluntly on a monetary prize. Then I remembered my own mother, who firmly believed that asking questions about who got paid what and why was the only reason she had survived American companies. George Wells, who advises Thomas on business matters, told me he expects his work to sell for at least $ 5 million over the next five years.
Almost everyone I've spoken to Thomas has mentioned that she doesn't have a home gallery performance as proof of her self-confidence, her common sense. Three years ago, Thomas left Lehmann Maupin, his longtime gallery, to operate as a freelance musical artist. To explain her thoughts on the property, Thomas described to me an icebreaker that she often uses when giving seminars.es to art students. She asks them a seemingly simple question: Where did the idea to split the profits 50-50 with your gallery come from? "Half the class will be like 'This ' s what you are supposed to do. 'And I will say ' Well, but why? '" What follows is the kind of conversation about the 'art, money and the longevity that Thomas wishes she had had as a student.
In her book " A Very Easy Death, "Simone de Beauvoir describes witnessing her mother 's rapid decline, her beauty quickly fading with the approach of death." The sight of my mother 's nudity had overwhelmed me, "she wrote. " No body existed less for me: none existed any longer. "
In his 2012 short, " Happy birthday to a beautiful woman, Thomas documented Mama Bush in her dying days." All you need to achieve is enjoy the time with this nobody like it 's his at last, with love, "Thomas remembers thinking." Forget all your [cursing]. Think of them as a human being. Bush, greatly diminished by disease, tells her own story story in the film, including her years of addiction, the abuse she suffered from Thomas 'father, and her conversion to Buddhism. Thomas showed "Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman" during her Brooklyn exhibition Museum in 2012, just days before Bush died. It strikes me as a gift to both: Bush to be able to share his final thoughts on life with his daughter, and Thomas to ask the kinds of vital questions that could, if they ever happen, are not asked, exacerbating the grief that a person feels after such a loss. Image Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas in July. Credit ... Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont for Hfrance.fr
Thomas remembers walking through the rooms of the museum at the opening, nervous about sharing this part of her story with the world. "I used it to motivate myself to do things, but never talked about it ", me- she said. "It wasn 't something I needed, to define who I was. And I still feel this way. The things an artist endures growing up certainly don't define who he is, but in Thomas's case, the good and bad of those years seem to have fueled a particular kind of tenacity.and an overwhelming urge to do things his own way. .
"Maybe it comes with the age of 50," she said. "I don't know. But I think I realized that I only have one life.
Angela Flournoy is the author of the novel " The Turner House ". She has received scholarships from the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy in Berlin. Her last profile for the magazine was that of director Barry Jenkins, in which she discussed her use of extended close-ups to create privacy in front of the camera.