Painter, photographer, and filmmaker Mickalene Thomas based her exhibition at the George Eastman House, on view through October 19, on her mother. Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman includes a living-room-size installation that is the setting for photographic portraits as well as Thomas’s recent film on her mother, who died in 2012.
Lyle Rexer: The exhibition at George Eastman House represents a significant departure for the institution, but I wonder how it feels for an artist known primarily for her paintings?
Mickalene Thomas: It’s exciting, really, given the institution’s collections, its relation to the history and technology of photography, and my own interest in photography. And after all, this is a photo-based exhibition.
LR: I am fascinated by the degree to which photography permeates all your work, often in very complex ways. It’s not just a matter of the content but your entire practice.
MT: Yes, and it has something to do with the fact that my early encounters with art were all via photographs. I got used to seeing art as images. Not only that, but photographs were a consistent theme in my family. My uncle was a photographer, and as a family we documented ourselves by taking pictures. There is something so visceral and yet ephemeral about a photograph. It seems to capture a moment, and we want so much to believe its description of space and time is real. But that’s a fallacy. There is room for fantasy and manipulation, and I want to explore that.
LR: And the relationship to painting?
MT: It’s interesting. I’ve always used images as the foundation of my paintings, but I never thought of myself as a “photographer.” At Yale I was taking a class in still life and doing all these set ups in preparation for painting, and I found myself getting bored. So I began to photograph them as well, and I found that I could manipulate their appearance. I was able to see them differently, to transform them into something else by using the camera.
LR: The current exhibition is focused on your mother. It’s a dense evocation, with your photo portraits and film nested in an elaborate domestic installation, a kind of 1970s period room. Apropos the camera, I wonder how its presence altered your relationship with your mother.
MT: I began taking pictures of her in the 1990s, but it was really at Yale that she became my true subject. I was experimenting with self-portraiture – I was all about Cindy Sherman – but it wasn’t working. The photographer David Hilliard suggested that I should shoot her. I told him we weren’t really talking to each other. He said something like, “Good, that’s where the trouble is, that’s your subject.” It became a tool of communication. When I looked through the camera, the relationship became not mother and daughter but artist and muse. For her part, she was able to give herself not to me but to images. The camera became a mediator; it wasn’t personal.
LR: In your portraits and especially in the film made before she died, we can see how the relationship deepened.
MT: We reversed roles. I became the parent and she became the child, vulnerable. I realized in the process how much I coveted her personality. She had such an energy and fierce pride. I had never seen myself that way and always wanted it. Perhaps I was trying to steal some of that, to claim it for myself. Her life was not mine, and this was a moment when I could know her as a person and accept her, when we could finally be friends and dance.