“The Impetus for Collage”: A conversation with Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont
Artist Mickalene Thomas and collector/art advisor Racquel Chevremont met up with William Corwin of artcritical.com to discuss their upcoming curatorial project at the Volta art fair, The Aesthetics of Matter. They also candidly discuss the artist/subject relationship on display in Mickalene’s paintings currently exhibited in the exhibition “Figuring History” at the Seattle Art Museum. Volta is open to the public March 7 to 11, 2018.
WILLIAM CORWIN: The Aesthetics of Matter is the curated section of Volta. Mickalene and RC , you have zeroed in on the idea of collage, as well as the model of the artist’s collective as a vehicle for change. What historical models are you looking at?
RACQUEL CHEVREMONT: The Dadaists. Political turmoil really brought that movement together and a lot of the work was based around collage. Given the times we’re living in with the current political situation, especially as it relates to people of color; we felt that was a good model to follow.
Do you have any favorites of the Dadaist group?
RC: Hannah Höch.
MICKALENE THOMAS: I think of them as a collective and I don’t necessarily work out of them: it just makes sense to find an historical thread of how one would work when it comes to our political and social endeavors.
You’ve talked about collage as a political vehicle, can you give me your own definition?
MT: It’s making sense of all these things that are in your everyday life, in the sense of using this information—how does one decipher and use this information practically? To make sense of that, you take all of the components and you make it into your own. When you do this you are sourcing very various aspects of society: cultural, metaphorical and spiritual, and combining them in a pastiche; putting them together, which is collage.
For me, that’s what’s happening right now. As an artist in 2018, what type of art is one to make when you have a history of genres? Which genre would you pull from? If you look at a lot of painters today, they’re pulling from various genres trying to find their own voice—they’re trying to authenticate their own language.
RC: The #Metoo movement, Black Lives Matter, and then the political environment as it is, we needed to figure out how to make sense of all this information coming in. That was the other impetus for collage.
And the influx of technology?
RC: Social media, all of it, there are so many things going on that artists are having to deal with; collage is just what you naturally go toward.
MT: It’s a metaphor, something you can’t and shouldn’t always define, but you know it when you see it. For example, Devin Morris: when you look at his work, you would not immediately think of collage; but how he puts together the images, the sets, the space, and the performativity of the work. What’s executed is a photograph, but everything that went into making that photograph is collage.
How did you two co-curate? What was your process?
MT: It was natural: she would bring an artist to the table, I would bring an artist to the table, and immediately [snaps]. As soon as Racquel presented me with the work it was a must, and likewise [with my selections], and some of them we came to together. Naturally, we’re two women here, so I think out of the gate most people would think we’re going to have all women artists, and we would love to do that, but we wanted the work to be conceptually about groups of people, regardless of their gender and background, so you’ll see a really beautiful balance.
RC: There’s an MFA from Yale, then you’ll have someone who hasn’t even gotten a BFA.
MT: Some that are represented at galleries and some that don’t have any representation. There’s a dialogue with all of the work.
RC: It probably isn’t all that well known; we’re starting something called the Deux Femmes Noires. It’s an initiative to help bring exposure, and use our platform and visibility, for artists of color, in particular women. We all know, as a female artist, it’s extremely difficult to get funding for museum shows—a lot of museums don’t show women because of that—and then add to that being an artist of color, and then your odds go up even more dramatically.
MT: There’s a misconception that these funds are available, and then when you get to the door, you realize they are available, just not for you.
RC: We’re trying to bridge a little bit of that gap. We can’t do it all, but we’ve gotten to a point in our careers where we want to give back. We’re starting it off with this show at Volta.
Switching to the exhibition “Figuring History” at the Seattle Art Museum; it’s very rare to have the artist and the muse at the same table. I want to investigate that relationship. Several images of you, RC , are in the show, so I think it’s very a propos that we discuss this. How do you work together as the artist and the subject, what is that relationship like?
MT: It’s fantastic. It’s magical.
RC: I don’t actually feel like a subject, I feel like it’s a collaboration and we’re working together on it, so it’s wonderful.
You’ve been a subject many times before, Racquel, so you’re used to this in a way, being the inspiration.
MT: There was a lot of apprehension on my part to make and show some of her images. It’s for my own selfish needs, you know, not wanting anyone else to have any other images of her but me. A lot of these works come from previous bodies of work such as photographs and collages that I made three years ago, but I just had the creative space and the emotional space to gift them now. It is a gift from me to make a work of art of my partner, the person I’m in love with, the person who I’m growing with on all these different levels of partnership.
Do you feel like you’re giving part of that away?
MT: I was, but now I think it’s a great gift, because I’m showing the world what I feel and my connection to this muse, if you will. It was a lot of apprehension and resistance to present those, I was holding onto them for a long time.
Racquel, do you feel this apprehension, almost jealousy, in sharing this as well?
RC: I wish we could own all of them, but I do love that they’re going out there into the world. I am, we both are, very protective of them and where they end up, if they end up somewhere other than in our home. A part of it initially was she was nervous to paint me.
Were you nervous to be painted?
RC: I wasn’t because I love her work.
MT: I wake up with her, I was on eggshells: what if I paint her and she hates it? Or, the depiction is wrong, or something is awkward and she can’t stand it? All of that anxiety is around someone you love, you want to put them on this high pedestal. You want them to see it, and when they look at it, it speaks; it resonates; it glows.
What if she doesn’t like the image? Has that ever happened?
Mickalene, you’ve said that when you entered art school, you entered an abstract painter and you left a figurative painter. What caused that transition? What instilled that new found idea of the power of the image?
RC: I’m going to sneak in—I’m not sure she considers herself a figurative painter…
MT: Yeah, the use of figuration: image-maker, or one who uses representation. When I think of figurative painting I think of Eric Fischl and all those painters. I don’t necessarily look at the figure in the same way. There’s a different way of looking at, and seeing, the body that interests those particular practices that doesn’t necessarily interest me. But, I respect them. There is an element, a thread of that which comes into the work, but it stops at a certain point and I put it on the shelf because it’s about representation and the subject. What the subject embodies to me is most important: how I come into that is through photography. Using photography as a reference tool to make a painting was an avenue to how I approached using representation. I was making these crazy abstract paintings and I enjoyed making them. I received a pre-requisite letter in my mailbox as everyone does after their first semester at Yale that recommended that I take a photo class. I took that photo class and it changed everything.
I would never have thought that photography would be this huge facet of my work, every aspect from the collage to the installation to the painting is about photography, and I never imagined I would work out of that as a language. Thinking about materiality, concepts, and how I execute my work has lead into video and film. Though there are various disciplines I use in my work, there’s still that underlying thread that connects, and…that…is…collage [laughs]
Racquel, what is the motivating factor behind your practice as an advisor and a collector?
RC: I work within a narrow spectrum in the art world. I essentially collect African American, diaspora, and latino work. I began advising because there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me that were collecting. There are a lot of people that look like me who had the means, but didn’t have the interest. I thought it was really more that they didn’t have the [art] education and they weren’t told this was something you did. I began doing these salons in my home in Brooklyn where I would invite young people to come and listen to artists, curators, and other collectors speak.
While I was modeling I was travelling a lot. I wasn’t a party girl, so I wasn’t at night clubs. First off, I was reading investment magazines, and about art. I would go to every museum in every city I could—I was in Europe for a long time. The first few pieces I purchased were French artists, but then I got back to the U.S., to New York and really focused. I said “I’m going to build a collection: what do I want it to be when I’m no longer here, what do I want it to represent?” Mickalene was one of my early purchases; Laila Ali, Kehinde Wiley.
My passion is to make sure that people who look like us have a part in this history, and I felt they weren’t even being excluded, for the most part; because they weren’t even attempting to get involved.
The Aesthetics of Matter features Christie Neptune, David Shrobe, Devin Morris, Didier Williams, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Tomashi Jackson, Kennedy Yanko, Troy Michie. Figuring History also includes the artists Kerry James Marshall and Robert Colescott