Mickalene Thomas’ shimmering, tactile collage portraits aren’t just pretty faces. Exploring themes of self-love, black female sexuality, beauty, power and exploitation, the works are as multilayered as the artist’s process, which combines painting, drawing and photography, paper and textured and patterned fabric, and embellished with rhinestones and Swarovski crystals.
The artist, whose work encompasses a variety of mediums — including video, film and performance — is nimble enough to segue between fine art, editorial, advertising, commissions and even products.
Thomas in the last two years has had solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Dayton Art Institute and Wexner Center for the Arts, but she hasn’t forgotten the challenges of forging a career in the art world, and agreed to be one of three judges of Absolut’s Creative Competition, a global search to find “the next bold creative voice of the brand.”
“You graduate from art school and your hope is to get a gallery,” she says. “You want a commercial presence and an institutional presence. That can also put up walls in terms of who has an opportunity to engage with that work.”
She wants to break down those walls. “For me those possibilities are great. I did a shoe project many years ago with Brother Vellies. I’ve done collaborations with Dior,” Thomas says. “My Dior bag was released [last year] and I’d like to do another one. Dior comes with a whole history and legacy of exquisiteness and elegance and opens doors to new conversations about my work. It’s the same with Absolut.”
Thomas is giving a visitor a tour of her studio in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn on a blustery afternoon. Racquel Chevremont, the artist’s partner and muse, is sitting at the long farm table in the kitchen, playing with their dog. The artist stops in front of a portrait of Chevremont posed in a carefully crafted environment.
“See how Racquel is sitting and looking forward? I painted the interior with a sense of space and place,” Thomas says. “There’s a faux utopian construct of what is a home. What is a house that makes you call it a home? It has a sense of warmth, a fireplace, a person who resides there and inhabits the space.
“How do you expand the dialogue of your work?” she asks. “We’re at a heightened sensory level. People want to be immersed in experiences. The viewer wants to become a participant, to be able to walk into my installments and sit in my chairs. Everyone wants to be behind the scenes in the process.
“I’m interested in putting that together, so the viewer is present. The chairs [in paintings] are at an angle, so the viewer knows they’re welcome,” continues Thomas, who came across “The Practical Encyclopedia of Decorating and Home Improvement,” an 18-book series published in 1971, at a thrift store. Sixties- and Seventies-era decor such as faux wood paneling, house plants and clashing fabric patterns resonated with the artist, reminding her of her relatives’ rec rooms.
When Thomas was studying for her master degree in fine arts at Yale, she used Jet magazine “for the discourse of my thesis on identity, loving your curves, a sense of representation and agency over one’s body, vulnerability and nudity. I was working within my practice of direct portraiture and interior spaces.
“My mother was a model,” Thomas adds. “She was a collector of Jet magazines.”
The artist’s “Jet Blues: Women From Jet Magazine” series features works inspired by the publication’s Beauty of the Week feature. “When she passed, she had boxes and boxes of magazines,” Thomas recalls. “I scanned and re-collaged them in different scenes based on collage images I collected. I placed them in new spaces contextualized by me. Raquel and Maya [Thomas’ former lover] were photographed in those constructed spaces.”
Thomas is intense and opinionated, but in the kitchen, another side of her comes out. She makes turmeric tea, extolling its health virtues, and lets out a disarmingly loud laugh. The artist has been her own muse. “Me as Muse,” a 2016 multimedia installation with 12 monitors, is about “loving yourself, loving your curves, agency over one’s body, expressions of identity and sexuality,” says Thomas of themes she touches on.
Fashion is another theme. Chevremont has worn a Chanel dress with clear over-the-knee boots, Gucci shirtdress, and floral shirt and leggings by Dolce & Gabbana. Some styles look like they could be from the Seventies, but some have overtones of other decades, and that’s the point. The artist doesn’t use fashion to reflect the styles of the times, nor does she choose the luxury labels for the status they convey. She wants to shift perceptions and challenge stereotypes of African-American beauty, so women can define themselves. “In my family, the women were always the ones who were powerful,” she says. “They exuded a charisma of empowerment that I hold onto and always remember.”
Thomas, who designed a black Bar jacket and Lurex skirt for Dior’s Cruise show presented in Marrakech this week, said, “I’m very particular about the [brands] I work with. I believe in authenticity and artistic integrity. Dior and Absolut have that. Dior has along history of craftsmanship and artistry and quality. There are a few brands I would collaborate with…Gucci is one. I actually designed a dress that I would love to continue. I’d love to design other dresses and more ready-to-wear or even couture.
Partnering in 2013 with Absolut — whose artistic collaborators include have included Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Arman Armand, Romero Britto and Maurizio Cattelan, among others — Thomas created the Better Days bar for the Absolut Art Bureau during Art Basel 2013. Named after the parties her mother would throw with friends, the installation featured a Seventies pastiche of fake wood paneling, linoleum flooring and lava lamps.
Working on Better Days allowed Thomas to “create a more immersive experience with my installations. It allowed me to think about my space differently and relate it to performance and relate it to film.” Thomas, who also designed the libations for Better Days — a White Russian, rosemary martini and punch based on a house party family recipe — says, “We elevated the drinks. There’s something that comes with ordering a White Russian in a beautiful gimlet glass. We had this amazing Jello shot packed with alcohol.
“I did a collaboration with Absolut in 2017, ‘Imaging a Better Tomorrow, Today,’ which spawned the competition,” Thomas says. Absolut’s line is actually, “Imagine a Better Tomorrow, Tonight.”
Thomas had been approached by Absolut for other projects, but “it’s either been about the timing or the project didn’t feel right at the moment. I feel like I’m part of a family of artists. Absolut is a great supporter of issues such as LGBTQ and they’re also willing to pay what the artists feel they deserve. They respect your contribution and pay for that contribution. That’s why they have a long history of artists wanting to work with them.”
On the judging committee with Thomas are Aaron Cezar and Bose Krishnamachari. The competition, which extends to 19 countries, has received 7,500 submissions. A winner will be chosen in each country, with the global winner revealed on May 17.
“Artists sent amazing work. I’m looking to lend expertise and knowledge and elevate and advocate,” she says. “We’re each judging entries from seven countries. Absolut is giving agency to emerging artists. They’re seeking new talent and seeing what’s out there in the world. This could be transformational for the artists.
Thomas has no patience for old schoolers who frown on commercial partnerships. She recognizes Absolut’s ability to reach millions of potential art lovers worldwide. The hookup, she says “adds another layer and conversation to my work and opens it up to a demographic of people who might otherwise not see it.”