Mickalene Thomas

fluoro spoke with New York based, contemporary artist Mickalene Thomas about her dialogue with history, her distinct style and the level of comfort that came from working with her mother.

Best known for her elaborate paintings composing of Swarovski rhinestones, acrylic and enamel, Thomas has introduced a complex vision of what it means to be a woman.

(f) The representation of the female body has been deeply explored through art history, what inspired you to explore this in a contemporary context.

(MT) I believe that history is important whether it is art history, political history, or cultural history – it allows you to gain an understanding of the language that has developed and where you might contribute to the discussion.

Conversation is still taking place today about art from the late 19th and early 20th century, because it really marks the time when female models start to assert their own identity. Around this time, at least in the contemporary discourse, the sitters for the classic nude genre ceased to be anonymous props and began to insist on their individuality and presence through their gaze.

African-American women were largely absent within the history of figurative painting; I felt a kinship and desire to interact with pivotal figurative painters of this style, and was greatly inspired by this history.

As my work develops I return to the past as a way of determining what is missing and what I can add to the conversations in painting that I find most interesting.

(f) Your mother has acted as a muse to many of your paintings – tell us more about how your relationship and how she inspires you.

(MT) I see our relationship as a mutual artistic collaboration, not only as mother and daughter. This collaboration really happens during my photo shoots when I’m working with her and trying to capture her own sense of sensuality or power.

In the past I have worked with lovers and felt that doing so gave the work a more sensual and romantic resonance. I feel that working with my mother has freed me from worries concerning exploitation and intimacy.

There is a level of comfort and lack of self-consciousness that my mother was able to achieve with me that I think comes a little harder for other models. Because of this, the pieces of my mother are often some of the most psychologically revealing and complex of my work.

(f) What does the inclusion of photography, painting and collage, in your working process, allow you to explore?

(MT) Photography is one of the most important ways that we represent others and ourselves; it is the primary visual medium of communication, so much of my work has to do with ideas surrounding representation, ideas like artifice and the construction of beauty. Because photography is such a fast way of capturing a moment, it offers the ability to catch the shifting projections that each model or subject offers during a photo shoot.

Painting becomes more of a fantasy; it is really what I want it to be, having nothing to do with the real image itself. Photography manipulates the viewer into accepting something for what it is, it resides in that reality of what is “true.”

What is interesting and fun for me about collage is that you can bring these elements, the truth, the manipulation, and the fantasy and you make it into what you want to present. The collages give me the opportunity to make something from a place of un-planned, un-structured creativity. This step is what provides the opportunity for gesture in my work, where I can feel a direct connection to my materials and the finished piece.


Thomas’ work has “evolved organically over time”, often leading her to a point she might not have imagined. Continuing to develop and grow as an artist, the power and depth in her work will no doubt change as well.

Mickalene Thomas’ solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston runs until April 7 2013.

For more information visit www.icaboston.org


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