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Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas Channels Claude Monet at Musée de l’Orangerie

Eliza Jordan

21 December 2022

Tucked into the west corner of the Tuileries Garden in Paris is the Musée de l’Orangerie. It is here through February 6, 2023, that “Mickalene Thomas: Avec Monet” is on view, showcasing works by the American artist that exemplify her visual language and recount her time as an artist-in-residence at Claude Monet’s home in Giverny, France in 2011. “My residency several years ago in France at Giverny, the cradle of Impressionism, made a powerful impact on me,” said Thomas. “I learned important elements that allow me to understand how you made a painting and, more importantly, that sense of rebellion that stirs artists.”

Mickalene Thomas, Salle à manger et sofa avec Monet, 2022, photographie couleur, papiers imprimés, peinture acrylique, Swarovski Crystal Fabric et strass sur papier, montage sur dibond, photo by © Musée de l’Orangerie / Sophie Crépy, 2022 © Mickalene Thomas © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

New pieces that spotlight her creative vocabulary, created over the past 20 years, are exhibited—including three large-scale collages, one monumental painting, and an immersive site-specific installation featuring her 2016 sculptural video installation entitled Me As Muse. In dialogue with Monet works, as well as images of his home (such as in La Maison de Monet), Thomas’s creations dissect art history and magnify popular culture, offerings a diverse and complex representation of femininity and sexuality, as well as desire and power.

Ahead of the show’s closing, Thomas shared with Whitewall how the exhibition examines personal and conceptual narratives, and what she’s looking forward to in 2023.

Mickalene Thomas

Portrait of Mickalene Thomas by Luisa Opalesky.

WHITEWALL: This presentation marries existing and new works, and visually discusses an array of important topics related to gender and identity. What was your initial idea for the show?

MICKALENE THOMAS: A large part of my practice has involved conversing with and building upon the art historical canon and Western notions of beauty by recontextualizing and innovating well-known forms to claim the repositioning of the Black women’s narrative within history. It’s important for me to position Black women and images of us on a higher level by occupying spaces of our own—a space in which Black women have the freedom to recline, relax, and repose. I thought that it was only fitting to continue the conversation about the female body.

WW: The show is also slanted toward your time as an artist-in-residency at Claude Monet’s home 11 years ago. How would you describe that time?

MT: Being at Monet’s former home was a very interesting and enlightening experience. I was struck by how Monet very deliberately and meticulously decorated and designed his residence to transform it into a personal creative space.

Mickalene Thomas, La Maison de Monet (détail), 2022, photographie couleur, papiers imprimés, peinture acrylique et cristaux Swarovski sur papier, montage sur dibond 121 x 216 in, photo by © Musée de l’Orangerie / Sophie Crépy, 2022 © Mickalene Thomas © Adagp, Paris.

WW: What details specifically reference this time?

CM: Seeing how Monet thought carefully about the arrangement of his space, I endeavored to bring a similar consideration of space to this exhibition, both within the work itself and throughout the exhibition area as a whole. All of the work in this exhibition reference elements of Giverny. In La Maison de Monet, the collaged photographic images are of Monet’s home. Salle à Manger et Sofa avec Monet is juxtaposed with compositions of the interior of his home and Le Jardin d’Eau de Monet uses the signature motifs of the waterlilies.

WW: What does the video Me As Muse represent? What do you hope it represents to the viewer?

MT: Me as Muse is about being unapologetically present by occupying space. It discusses the idea of the muse and the odalisque, and the space the muse occupies within the work. It confronts the complexities of notions of beauty and desire of the female body in a very personal and vulnerable examination, reclaiming space on one’s terms historically, politically, and psychologically, by transforming the black woman from object to subject.

Mickalene Thomas, Me as Muse, 2016, Installation vidéo multimédia Durée : 4 minutes, photo by © Musée de l’Orangerie / Sophie Crépy,2022 © Mickalene Thomas © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

WW: The work is also shown in a garden space. Was that important to you?

MT: Yes, I wanted to create an immersive site-specific experience for the viewer. It was very deliberate to create a garden that reflected Monet’s to provide an experience for viewers based on my memory of the place. The sound and visual elements of the flowers and elevated stone path created a tranquil environment accompanied by an audio recording of Eartha Kitt describing her personal and, very clearly, direct, traumatic experiences of violence and discrimination. The importance is to elevate the viewers senses as they listen and view the conceptual framework juxtaposed with elements of Monet. This installation examines and pushes against how identity, gender, and subjectivity have been informed by the fetishization of the female body.

Mickalene Thomas, Salle à manger et sofa avec Monet, 2022, photographie couleur, papiers imprimés, peinture acrylique, Swarovski Crystal Fabric et strass sur papier, montage sur dibond, photo by © Mickalene Thomas © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

WW: How would you describe your relationship with the emerging emphasis on digital art? Is it changing the way you’re looking at your creative practice now or in the future?

MT: The emerging technology has absolutely changed how we see images. Images can now be rendered in entirely new ways— Which is very exciting if you’re open to using digital techniques as tool within your artistic practice. There are various digital platforms that can be explored and it’s important as a creative person for me to integrate digital techniques in ways I see applicable and appropriate to my practice.

Mickalene Thomas, Le Jardin d’Eau de Monet, 2022, photographie couleur, papiers imprimés et strass sur papier, montage sur dibond, 44.5 x 55 in., photo by © Musée de l’Orangerie / Sophie Crépy, 2022 © Mickalene Thomas © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

WW: This show represents the breadth of your visual language, which has been cultivated over the past twenty years. How would you describe your “visual language” as it is today?

MT: My visual language is as an image maker and a shapeshifter. I’m interested in disrupting the norms within the Western canon. Therefore, my creative language is expansive, and I have succinctly described, within my practice, alternate ways of seeing from the personal through the conceptual.

Mickalene Thomas

Portrait of Mickalene Thomas by Luisa Opalesky.

WW: After much isolation amid the pandemic, how are you celebrating the “now”?

MT: The pandemic has allowed for some drastic transformation personally and professionally. These transitions allowed time for introspection and creativity to new ways of thinking and making by examining existing modes of living. The “now” is about moving forward and learning from past experiences– failures and successes.

WW: What is happening in 2023 that you’re excited about?

MT: I’m super excited about 2023 and onward. There is so much growth in my life. I’m embarking on major projects—collaborating with fashion brands, starting a foundation, Art FORWARD (formerly known as Pratt FORWARD), creating spaces for emerging artists, and showing at major international museums in Paris, London, Berlin, and Asia.

Mickalene Thomas, La Maison de Monet (détail), 2022, Photographie couleur, papiers imprimés, peinture acrylique et cristaux Swarovski sur papier, montage sur dibond, 121 x 216 in, photo by © Musée de l’Orangerie / Sophie Crépy, 2022 © Mickalene Thomas © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

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