The (He)Art and Soul of Mickalene Thomas

All pictures by Lianna Tarantin

All pictures by Lianna Tarantin

I could not think of a better way to close 2013 than with a visit to the studio of Mickalene Thomas.  I’m a raving fan of hers and her work and she is as every bit as fun, lively, engaging and amazing as her art is. I vividly remember in 2010 seeing one of her masterpieces: Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, in the windows at The MoMA right by The Modern Restaurant.  I stood there for a long time mesmerized by the collage, the Swarovsky crystal rhinestones that created such a sparkle, the colors, the composition and the commanding power of the piece.  Every single passerby was also engulfed by it – nobody could ignore the profound visual and emotional impact of this seven feet long panel and the intensity with which the three subjects stared at their onlookers. 

Thomas is an extraordinary artist, one of the most remarkable of her generation.  Besides having an unexpected technique and a totally identifiable style; Mickalene explores topics that are near and dear to my heart: female empowerment, the fantastic world of the 70s, the disco music, the afro queens and rooms with crazy colored floors, patterned fabric upholsteries and wallpapers –all covered in Swarosky crystals that add so much more depth than oil or acrylic alone and keep the eye engaged.  In fact, the rhinestones are in a way what define Mickalene's pieces and have become a major staple of her work. And she is equally mind-blowing at painting portraits, landscapes or interiors, photographing subjects, creating collages and installations and immersing herself and others in her magic universe.  I would need to apologize to old masters, including Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet for saying this, but damn, Mickalene’s takes on their historical works are so much better, soulful, passionate and eloquent. 

My visit to her massive Brooklyn studio which spans two gigantic rooms and smaller subareas, was like a day in wonderland: I used her chopsticks to put rhinestones in a piece that she was working on (directed by her, of course); looked in every corner and amazed myself with the reigning order of drawers and supplies.  Even a reference library, plus all the many books and magazines where Mickalene has been featured, were perfectly organized alphabetically. I played with and posed inside the installations, one of which was at her solo show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2012, and felt like a toddler in a candy store for the duration of the glorious hours I stayed there. 

Like every year since she has become the great phenomenon that she is, Mickalene will have a very, very busy 2014.  Some of the projects include her participation in a show at the Seattle Museum of Art that has asked Thomas to create a piece showing her own contemporary interpretation of pop art. She also has an upcoming documentary that will air on HBO which is based in part on a beautiful short film that Mickalene created two years ago celebrating the life of her most important muse, her late mother Sandra Bush.  A solo show in the fall in Paris with Nathalie Obadia is also in the agenda, plus a recreation of her Absolut Art-sponsored 2013 “Better Days Art Bar” which debuted last summer in Art Basel, except that this time will be installed in Berlin.

It's with great joy that I honor the beauty and passion of the incomparable Ms. Thomas - and thank her for allowing me in her studio; for redefining beauty, female empowerment and sensuality and making it all art.