toast of New York
for her rowdy painted and rhinestone riots of patterns and
personality, finishing up a successful solo show at Lehman
. The work has consistently struck me as some of the boldest being done today. She's also a former Portland-based model who left to study
art at Pratt then Yale (she discovered her interest in art at PSU). She still visits Portland frequently and we have a lot
of mutual friends... but for a change PORT caught up with her in her Brooklyn
studio to talk about her first New York solo show, her work and what is next.
Jeff: Forgive me but I have to ask, why rhinestones?
Mickalene: At the beginning I didn't know why. One, I always worked in different materials
like sequins and glitter, all of these untraditional craft materials that I
seemed to gravitate towards for my process. Once I started using rhinestones
I started thinking about how they are used in the world. For me there are different
qualities in the rhinestones; there are some that are acrylic, some that are
glass and then some that are crystal. Each has a different quality that resembles
the various elements of our culture in the way they are made and used
for instance accoutrements on garments and the way they are there to beautify
or enhance a quality.
Naughty Girls (need love too) 2009 courtesy Lehman Maupin
To me that dressing up is a way of masking, much in the same way a young girl dressing
up in her mothers clothing so she can feel good about herself is... because she sees
her mother getting dressed up in the evening and she want to emulate that kind
of action. Instead of just an accoutrement that you put on, the rhinestones
are actually enhancing a quality that already exists.
J: So it is continuing the sitter's transformation process that began when
you have your sitters dress up in the staged studio environments. After the session
is done you continue to push and embolden the composition with rhinestones. It's the opposite
from Warhol who was very reductive, instead you are additive. Also, unlike a
flat surface.. rhinestones change as you view them from different angles, so
not to make a bad pun but in a way you are making your subjects even more boldly
faceted by using them.
A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y (2009) courtesy Lehman Maupin
MT: I'm definitely thinking about Warhol's reductive elements but I'm embellishing
them my way which makes them quite different. I think about how Warhol used
these graphic icons that were already out in the world and presented them so
boldly. That "here it is" stance is something I think about and I
would say appropriate from. These portraits stem from his work in a way, especially
how this new multi-portrait piece (A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y) is presented.
I did a piece called "Sweet and Out Front" where I took all these
characters from "Sweet
Sweetback's Badasssss Song
" the Melvin Van Peeples movie. I was invited
to be in this group show Sweet Back related to the movie and so many people
were so fixated on Melvin Van Peeples and the main characters in the movie.
And I thought, What about the women in the movie?... because most of his interaction
is with all of these different women and no one really talks about them in the
movie. So what I did was take clips of all of these women in the movie and composed
them in the same way as Warhol's Jackie O. I thought it was really successful
because it brought these women to the front. That's why I called it Sweet and
Out Front because these women had been used as background or a window or entry
where the Melvin Van Peoples character was going into next.
That Movie is kind of trippy. The first time I saw it I was like Wow, I didn't
know this movie existed? That first scene his son Mario Van Peoples is having
sex with this older woman and he is actually having sex for the first time,
he like actually lost his virginity on film, it is so wild, ha! (see
J: Sounds like a Hollywood industry right of passage. Then I see the Chris
Ofili image above you there, obviously your work shares some similar concerns.
MT: I like Chris Ofili a lot
J: But he is different, he's more iconographic less interested in portraiture
like he's creating a very altered version of those Russian icons
a master of pattern and flash but his collage elements from porn and elephant
dung are also very loaded
it certainly got Giuliani all bent out of sorts.
MT: Yeah he's living in Trinidad now with Peter Doig, they are good friends.
Chris Ofili's was probably one of the first works I saw when I was in undergrad
at Pratt. They had the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum. Giuliani, the
Mayor of New York did not like it at all. Well the Brooklyn Museum had started
a program called the Ask Me program and they would put students next to paintings
and if they had questions about it they could ask you. So I volunteered and
for the duration of the show my post was standing next to the Chris Ofili.
J: So you were stationed next to the single
most controversial bit of art shown in New York for the past decade or more
nice, what was that like?
MT: I was just bombarded by dozens of questions at once with people getting
angry at me at points as if I had made the work. I was thinking "This is
really exciting" I was like a sophomore in college and it was exciting
to see a work of art cause such strong feelings. Some people loved it but all
that anger seemed to be sparked by a frustration and misread the work as
something that it was not.
Ofili's work had a quality that was an influence at that time as a student when
I was inspired by everything. It made me feel like you could make anything. I
remember thinking Mickey, you can do anything you want and it wasn't based on
whether I liked or didn't like his work
it simply opened up the possibilities.
I could make what I wanted to make.
J: I still regret not getting a small print of his that Pulliam Deffenbaugh
had for a mere $400 about 10 years ago. I went back later that day and it was
gone. He has such a sure hand, great lines and an impossible talent for pattern
MT: His last show at David Zwirner was pretty amazing. I particularly liked
the sculptures a lot.
J: I can see it here but describe what is your own studio is like now that the show is almost upon you?
MT: A lot of the work just left the other day so right now I'm looking at these
bare walls. It's strange when so much of the work is gone, but I guess that's
the fun part
going back to zero and at that moment you start again.
J: And you are currently in between the opening of your solo show at Lehman
Maupin and a group show you just curated?
MT: Exactly, this is probably one of the hardest shows I've ever had to prepare
for because I just had a solo show November in Chicago and when I agreed to
do this solo show everything seemed so far away and then it kind of just crept
up. So I feel like I haven't rested for quite a while, but it feels good.
J: How has that been? The world has changed so much
even since last November
everybody's mindset seems to have changed around the economy and various new
MT: I'm working
. working in the studio. I mean, you just allow whatever
is happening to take its course, the only thing I can control is what is happening
in the studio. So far I mean it's been pretty good, the economy hasn't
effected my sales. Yes, things are slow overall but people are still interested
in buying art.
They are being a little more conscientious about the kind of art they are buying
they aren't buying because it is a hot commodity or because they have someone
telling them to buy it. They are collecting because they have an interest in what
the artist is doing. It is a different than it was and it's a positive development
J: The stuff I see selling right now seems to be work that makes its own argument
it is stuff that is noticeably extra good and stands out from its peers. This
is even happening in Portland, only the best stuff sells
even when its way
more expensive than the other work in the room. If you are a real collector it
isn't an investment consideration, you are more invested in the work on a personal
MT: Yeah, I was talking to one of my collectors recently and I was really happy
that they had the work because you could tell they were buying works of art
that they really liked and responded to and not because they had been marketed
to. That is really important to me.
I've been fortunate that my work hasn't really hit some auction market where
it has been flipped over but of course that's not to say that wont happen but
most of the collectors who have my work I do have a connection with. It's really
funny because we were just updating my card catalog of images and it's a testament
to the galleries that I work with but it's nice to see so much of the work going
to "collectors" in the true sense of the word.
J: and now onto the work itself, I've seen it in several galleries but this
is the first time I've seen it in your studio setting, and I'm struck by how very
theatrical the work and workspace is.
MT: Drama is good
All she wants to do is dance (Fran) 2009 courtesy Lehman Maupin
J: You have sets here.
MT: That is where the work begins. It starts with a particular idea which I
employ the sets as a way of composing. In the past it was just a simple photo
studio where you put up a piece of cloth and you put the model in front of it
and you just shoot them. Well it developed and grew out of that moment and became
a larger entity in itself where it was like, oh I can have a mat sitting next
to her and then have her sitting in a chair and the next thing I know I'm creating
entire environments for the models and now that is become a work of art in itself.
I've actually had several opportunities where I've been asked to do site specific
installations. Not many know me for my installations but it is nice when I'm
able to do it, because that's where all of the work begins before the paintings
and then the photographs, then the collages and then the paintings.
Dont Forget About Me (Keri) 2009 courtesy Lehman Maupin
J: And you've got just reams and reams of patterned fabric over there in the
corner. I've always appreciated work by people like Philip Taaffe and Anna Albers,
its all about pattern. Then you have work like Warhol's camouflage series. Also,
you always seem to use strong contrasting patterns, you are the complete opposite
of Agnes Martin; you are putting green, goldenrod and red and turquoise together.
Yet there is something about pattern from you or Ages Martin or Frank Stella
that always seems like a social statement
. Something about the way you
want to approach the world and be read by it.
MT: I've always liked strong contrasts, it kind of embodies the force of contradiction.
It's a way to acknowledge things that are going on in our world. For me these
installations with all of these different patterns relates to the kind of overload
of information that we are constantly bombarded with.
I try to infuse the models with a sense of empowerment, because they are sitting
in this resting place within the composition. The models become the focus point
because there is all of this stuff around them and they are a strong contrast.
Yet all of the patterns can also be the focus point, demanding a lot of attention
and I want that kind of tension between intense pattern activity and the more
in model. It speaks to things that I'm attracted to and the way I grew up. It's
really just my aesthetic taste, particularly photographs of Africa from the
1970's which influenced this direction.
Photo of an African king by Daniel Laine
J: And in terms of this show is it more focused on single portraits? I've seen
the previous images of you wrestling yourself but right now I'm just seeing these
smaller works where the figure commands almost the entire picture plane.
MT: Yeah this show is more about portraiture. What you see here in these small
portraits is actually 17 pieces of a larger piece which is 40 panels; the other
23 are gone already. I do a lot of portraits and I sort of re crop the images
for the paintings. Eventually I had this surplus of images I hadn't used and
I sort of reconfigured them into one aggregate piece where I avoid the background
patterns and just focus on the figures.
J: It really does seem to be related to Warhol but with a difference, are these
all specific people close to you rather than celebrities?
MT: Yeah these are all specific people in my life, that's my mother up there
on the bottom left with the pink and blue on top of it. And these two aren't
finished yet but that is Fran, she's actually my hairdresser and the other person
up there is a friend that I met through Fran. A lot of times the models that
I use I have some relationship with, whether I meet them through friends or
family members. Only recently have I started advertising for models like on
craigslist which has been kind of interesting because it becomes this really
nice process of elimination. There is the audition which is really fun and it's
always interest just to see who responds.
J: And you form a relationship with these models?
MT: The relationship develops over a period of time and a series of conversations.
If there is a connection I choose the model and the relationship develops further
because I use them more than once. Sometimes it just doesn't work out because
there isn't that connection. In a way it becomes kind of a collaboration and
what the viewer experiences isn't because of me but because it comes from the
J: It's your sitter's inherent qualities and personality.
MT: Exactly, I have no control over that. I can put them in certain positions
and ask them to pose in a certain way but how the express themselves is their
J: So it isn't just the rhinestones that sparkle, it's the personality.
MT: Absolutely, the rhinestones are just another element. Like that photography
you see over there, all I did was take the photograph, it was fantastic and
I didn't have to do anything else with it to make it vibrant.
J: As a subject she has such poise and with that big thing hanging off of her
Portrait of Qusquzar (2008)
MT: It is like they themselves transform as they come into the studio space.
The installation is really nothing right now but when the model comes in it
is really done up and everything isn't all pushed to the side like it is now.
We are actually going to change it on Friday which is really exciting because
I've had this one for a while. And Qusquzar she doesn't dress like she is in
that photo every day, with that wig she has on
but they themselves transform
becoming some other person within themselves that they probably wouldn't immediately
recognize. which to me is the most exciting part. Because something else is
unleashed that makes them excited and that is where the collaboration comes
in. It is new for them because I often pick the shyest of the bunch because
the often have the most to bring to the table because they didn't necessarily
live or dress that way on a daily basis. So when they are transformed into this
other person it really comes out.
J: That is what separates your work from Warhol in important ways. Warhol was
fascinated with famous people who were victimized or marginalized by their status
in some way but you pick people that you have an intense, non fan, very real
so you can then watch them bloom. That's really interesting
and powerful and kind of why I've always been drawn to your work.
MT: It's fun to see and once again going back to that particular model again,
I gave her a small photo of themselves from the session. So instead of pay,
I'm giving them my art in appreciation. It isn't that kind of for hire transaction.
In that case she was so excited because she had never had a photo of herself
in the house and she blew it up. I thought that was so amazing that she looks
at it every day and it makes her feel good. That was awesome.
J: Having an image like that is like some nobleperson who gets a court portrait
of themselves and its hangs it in their formal dining room, so all of their
guests are reminded just who they are dining with. Its pompous and anachronistic
today but for someone who hasn't experienced much of that kind of assertive
MT: A lot of these women just don't have images of themselves and when they
suddenly see themselves in this light it builds a newfound confidence. But that
is what my work is about it is celebrating instead of victimizing these women
in a personal way.
What's Love Got to Do With It (Installation 2008)
J: So what is next for you?
MT: On Friday we are setting up a new, expanded installation in the studio
because I have an opportunity to do one in an 800 square foot space within a
5,000 square foot space in Spain that will be filled with my work, the photos,
the collages, sculptures and the paintings plus the new installation. The installation
will be like someone's apartment, like a really crazy apartment and since my
installations aren't that well known I'm really excited about it. So that is
September, then I have solo show with my LA gallery in January.
J: I saw you last solo show down there, it had even more attitude than your
regular solo shows (which have a ton of attitude already.
Brawlin Spitfire sculpture on Mickalene Thomas's desk
MT: You mean the Brawlin Spitfire series, well they are a bit more personal
because they are all me so the show has to be autobiographical. They stem from
my notions of the Amazon woman and how I perceive and have cultivated for myself
in the world. So that is the difference. I actually use myself a lot in the
other works but I remove myself. So the brawling spitfire is me adding personal
angst or ideas I have about who I am or my work. So I'm wresting myself in all
of those paintings and its about instant gratification and you know the inner
They are more metaphysical I guess. But I like them a lot and in many ways
they might be more successful because they are more paired down and much more
about the figures, rather than the other works which are figures in a patterned