In Chiffon Thomas’s “impossible bodies”—a term the artist uses to describe his work—construction materials are extracted from their original contexts to take on new functions. They reference the torso, limbs. Stair spindles become towers, a refuge for the body. Cleaved ventilation grates transform into window frames, providing glimpses into unknown worlds, and the leather skins of bibles are stitched into houses. Demolishing and rebuilding from rubble, Thomas’s works use a fragmented foundation to build resilient, movable shelters and bodies.
Thomas’s oeuvre recalls Dr. Elizabeth Alexander’s monumental text The Black Interior (2004): “Problem Number One: The black body has been misrepresented, absented, distorted, rendered invisible, exaggerated, made monstrous in the Western visual imagination and in the art world.” In spite of the ways the Black body has been and continues to be bound, both Alexander and Thomas imagine a racial future in the Black interior. By definition, something described as impossible is not attainable. Thomas’s “impossible bodies” speak to the experience of desiring and becoming something beyond the purview of nature or belief—how in doing so we are repeatedly invalidated, and how that invalidation often betrays the parameters of our social narratives. Yet Thomas’s practice also suggests an alternative world: much like an intricate network of glass that pieces together leaded window cames, his works function as vessels for holding personal and communal histories of boundless scope. If the saying that the passage of possibility is endless holds true, then Thomas’s works offer frameworks that structure the body and its interior as equally vast.
Thomas and I spoke following his exhibition Staircase to the Rose Window at P·P·O·W in New York City, and ahead of his debut solo museum exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, opening this September.
CHIFFON THOMAS: It’s good to see you!
TROY MONTES MICHIE: It’s good to see you too. I was looking over your exhibition, because I got the catalog—
CT: Whaaat?! You bought that little thing! That’s dope.
TMM: I was like, Oh, actually, I want to know about this and this and this. Some of it I feel like we would always talk about in the studio at Yale. It’s been such a pleasure to see your career grow. You have an uncanny way of creating personal and private spaces. With the individual works and the exhibition space, there’s a sense that everything is touched. How do you think about environment in your practice?
CT: Usually when I’m making a body of work, I’m always asking, How can I get the work to permeate throughout the entire space? How can I alter the walls or the floor? What ways can I engage the viewer to move around the space and feel as if they’re being pulled into an immersive space? When I have these concepts, the way that they permeate my thoughts starts to feel like this infringement or imprinting on the walls of my mind. I ruminate about these ideas for months. As I’m working, I’m thinking about how I can transfer those feelings into something that becomes tangible and visual and visceral in the space as I’m working. I am really influenced by stop-motion puppet animation, the touch and the building. I had an opportunity to spend two years doing that as an undergrad at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When you’re making stop-motion, you’re making everything with your hands. You’re building the characters, you’re creating the sets. We’re setting the lighting, playing all the roles—like a production team, but on a smaller scale. How are you trying to represent this story? Building these maquettes or miniature art worlds made me think, Why can’t my sculptures or any wall work that I produce have a tethered backdrop or setting?
TMM: I didn’t know that you had studied stop-motion. It makes sense in that sequences are completed through individual motions, frame by frame. It reminds me of all the different pieces and facets to your practice. A lot of times, it feels like skins, or various layers. That’s really important in the exhibition space because you’re using ceiling tiles, floorboards, and door- frames in your works, and thinking about how they’re housed in the space that they’re enclosed in.
CT: Mm-hmm. It’s a new interpretation of the material that’s really surreal and obscure, and that uncanniness reads through. As a viewer, you kind of know what the materials are, but now they’re passing as something else—they’re not exactly operating in the way that they were originally designed to. Columns found outside aren’t being used to give structural support. Windows and doors no longer operate as modes of access to interiors. Air ventilation grates become portals or framing systems. They’re still being used as a structural material, just for a different or new function. The materials some- times operate as garments, makeshift shelters, or substrates with an animistic quality. I like spinning stuff on its head, mainly because the material allows me to let it behave differently. I can only just slightly tweak something. And that’s usually enough to bring that uncanniness through.
TMM: That is the root of collage. I always tell myself that even if the gesture or the shift is small, it’s still a reconfiguration of its original state.
CT: Yeah, I was even looking at something you were saying about camouflage in your work. That through this repetition of material, you’re using what you already have, but making it appear to be something else—just slightly. Something occurs in our optics when what we see is familiar to us, but not exactly what we know it to be. Assemblage creates camouflage, but not quite. When the eye detects that something is off, that can be so obstructive that the reconfiguration comes to the foreground of our sight.
TMM: Makes sense. With camou- flage, it was the research that led me there. For the first time, I realized how much my practice is influenced by archives, the development of that research. Having grown up in El Paso with its military presence, camouflage made sense in my work, but I’d had no idea that the reason camouflage was furthered was because of how perspec- tive changed with aerial photography. Camouflage was no longer about hiding or concealing a body in the environ- ment from a one-on-one perspective—it became an overhead thing. They had to reevaluate the concealment of a terrain to fool the camera.
CT: That is so interesting, that’s wild ... I see myself approaching materials in a similar way. Even with the strange- ness of how I reassemble them, I’m still trying to situate them in a space that feels familiar and diffuse, like they are from this certain place, this era, and integrated with parts of my lineage that I can reference back to or have an actual connection to in some way. It’s hard for me to really explain what exactly makes me gravitate to certain materials. It can feel like it’s a necessity, but I don’t always have the language for it. Even as I shift through different materials, I’m seeking some of the same subconscious things.
TMM: Yes, same. I think it’s hard to describe intuition. I feel like in our education, intuition was not reason enough. The more I teach, I realize that visual language is a language in its own right. Part of the fun of being an artist is trying to decipher the scope of one’s visual language and its translation into words. Knowing that, if I just trust my intuition, everything I have absorbed will already be there. It just needs to catch up to the making, but consciously it is there.
CT: Yeah, I wish most interviewers realized that it’s just a visual language sometimes. And it’s so innate. (laughter)
TMM: As an artist who incorporates drawing, assemblage, collage, and embroidery, how do you think about your practice in reference to expanded painting? I’m interested in how many of the works in your exhibition Staircase to a Rose Window reference the window, which has historically been in dialogue with painting. I ask because I find people are so quick to define some- thing as not painting because it’s not on canvas with actual paint.
CT: You know, when I was a student, I got into a tense conversation with one of the professors about the embroidery in my work taking on the techniques of painting. I hadn’t realized that my work could be read that way because I was trying to subvert what painting does—it just didn’t feel like a history I ever fit into. I always thought about what alternative materials I could use that might imitate painting, and I didn’t associate that approach with using painting’s technical elements like color and shadow and tints. But I’m applying the same strategies with embroidery or torching, getting a smokiness or a charred look or a patina. Those are my palettes, in a sense. I’m still technically using the language of a painter. I think of the window as a cropped moment. I approach image making as an opportunity to build a portal into a fraction of a place or a space or a thought. But there’s a boundlessness that exceeds that. And that’s when I’m able to bring in more sculptural things that show elements of that boundless world. I am referencing the window throughout the entire show as this space of optimism or hope, or this unknown space where, if encountered through this window, you have the opportunity to be altered or even transported in a way that isn’t necessarily physical but metaphysical. All the works in the exhi- bition show fragments of this vast world that even I can’t fully conceive; there is a hopefulness or novelty to have the opportunity to confront the unknown.
TMM: What you said made me think about how there’s a hierarchy to these traditional materials, of paint and paint brushes and canvas. I’m also realizing that my painting material is magazines. That’s been really hard to grapple with, because we’re told that these materials aren’t supposed to be materials. The window feels, with you, like it’s liminal. It’s both interior and exterior: it allows you to be in an interior space and look outside, but also be on the outside looking in. The addition of the window “screens” with the embroidery makes so much sense because they function like a transparent veil.
CT: That is exactly what it feels like. Like there’s a threshold giving you access to a certain extent—you can see the potential of being in that space, but you don’t have access to it at the moment. I hadn’t even made that connection when I was creating those screens. And now it’s coming full circle—I’m going back to this longing to experience this unknown space again. Thank you for making me think about that.
TMM: That’s why I was so excited about the P·P·O·W show. I could see all the pieces finally coming together, that the window and the embroidery were pieces to be added to this moment.
CT: (laughter) You got me trippin’ out.
TMM: (laughter) In her book Queer Phenomenology (2006), Sara Ahmed explores how social relations are arranged spatially, and how queerness disrupts and reorders these relations by not following the accepted path. Do these relations of disruption and reordering align with your ideas of “impossible bodies”?
CT: They definitely do. I was recon- figuring the body in ways where my iterations still seemed like they had the possibility to exist, be mobile, and look very beautiful. But in reality, they were spliced up and cut up and reformatted and collaged together into these amal- gamations of parts. As a queer person, that is the way that my body moves through the world—just trying to work with what I have and getting it to func- tion. Not only as a queer person, but as a person who was previously read as a woman and a Black woman in the world. And with this recent shift in my identity and how people perceive me— without knowing that I have another background I don’t necessarily align with anymore—I’ve had to make my mind over in this way that feels really incapacitating. It’s kind of crippling where you feel...I don’t know how to completely answer this question without being real personal. (laughter)
TMM: It doesn’t have to get too personal.
CT: It don’t have to get too personal. Before I started to present myself as a trans person, I began work on this exhi- bition [Staircase to a Rose Window], and it was mostly about the oppression that I seen occurring within my family, being a Black family and just certain things that we kept getting stifled by—like business loans and trying to invest in property and things tethered to racism and the hinders of what that creates for marginalized families. I was making those bodies initially out of that. A lot of them were contained and trapped in these architectural parts that are associated with colonialism, white supremacy, and classism. But as I developed the work further, it started to become more about the entrap- ment of my own body, gender, gender roles, and being an amalgamation of masculine and feminine and gender nonconforming and what all of that looks like mashed up.
If I was to see these “impossible bodies” animated in the world, what would that look like? Their movements would not have a fluid way of moving through the world with these body parts that I have just sutured together or cut up or cast out of silicone or solid- ified through hydrocal and concrete. But then it kind of does look fluid, the way that I mesh things together. That’s also speaking to the fluidity of queer- ness and gender—these things that
are supposed to be juxtaposed, all of it turns in on itself constantly.
My first solo show was called Antithesis because I was thinking about these two opposing things coming together and coexisting in the world and asking, What is the friction that comes out of that? What is the splitting that happens, mentally or in the body? It disrupts spatial relationships. When you enter a grocery store and people say, “Ma’am, Oh— oh, I’m sorry, sir,” they don’t even know how to encounter people who don’t conform to what society is familiar with. My impossible bodies depict that internalized feeling, but also external experiences, because you go through surgeries, and you go through the healing of the body and physical and emotional trauma.
TMM: One thing I enjoy about your practice is that there’s something palpable about being in the presence of the work. I’m thinking about Ahmed’s writing because so often people don’t consider how our own bodies are addressed in space. Architecture, structures, what all that means when it’s applied to the body, but also how queer people and people of color, have constantly tried to reinvent or disrupt or find alternate paths because the system is flawed against us. These reinven- tions become a collage. We’re creating things from the familiar, but an alternate configuration of what the material is supposed to be. It has a strength. It has a sound.
CT: Yeah, I definitely see how we become so savvy as a people. The creation out of that is so original. When you are trying to find a way to navigate this world that rejects you, you just find alternate routes. It’s a cleverness... It’s an art, in the way it comes to exist. (laughter)
TMM: (laughter) Oh my God, since I mentioned sound, I’ll ask you this: As an artist who also plays music, I’ve been thinking about your performances with the drums. I was considering the relation between wood and its ability to resonate. I spoke with a musician who emphasized how an instrument can change the way one plays based on its history and what it has absorbed throughout its lifetime. Do you feel this type of affinity with the materials you choose to assemble and disassemble?
CT: Yes, so much, honestly. The two stand-in towers in Staircase to the Rose Window had drum elements in them. I got those drums off eBay during the pandemic, and I could just feel the life that those drums had. You could see the weathered elements on them. Originally, I was making Instagram posts, stories, and livestreams of me performing with drums in a park before I attached them to the sculptures. I would get comments like, “Oh, that drum is so crooked, maybe you should buy some parts for it because it’s getting really worn down.” These were professional drummers critiquing me. But I appreciated those qualities about these old drums because I felt like I inherited a drum that had an entire expe- rience that I would never know about.
I don’t have those drums anymore because they’re part of that sculpture now. I bought myself a brand-new drum, and it just doesn’t feel the same—it feels too synthetic because life hasn’t been penetrated within it yet. I can’t see the browning or the rusting of the chrome on the rim of the drum. All of that makes a difference in how you love or care for something. You can see how something was loved through the simple fact that it was used for its function.
I think about materials for my sculptures in the same way, through its patina or weathering. Something might be rusted or paint might be chipping off because it sheltered somebody from poor weather conditions. I’m talking about inanimate objects, but I do appreciate the life that they have lived before I come into possession of them, how they really tried to uphold what they were designed to do. I try to not alter any material intensely to let them shine and reverberate through the work because so much information is encoded in that stuff that I can never imitate or mimic.
That’s why, with those old drums, I was like, There’s got to be a way that I can activate the life in this instru- ment—what is already inside it. How could I use this instrument to resusci- tate memories from my childhood and fully feel them and be immersed and taken to a fragment of my mind that I can’t ever relive? I also play drums as therapy while I’m working. Because the material I use can be so difficult to bend or get to look like textiles—I gravitate toward making industrial material kind of look like garments—I take breaks, and I play drums and expel energy that’s a little bit more aggressive. Then I come back and confront the work again. Eventually I thought, Why don’t I just merge the two together? Music was being created and sung as I was making the sculp- tures; they should just exist together. They felt related.
TMM: I like this alchemy when thinking about the impossible. You are using materials that aren’t very malleable, but somehow you’re able to make them workable. I like thinking of that in terms of the confines of our own bodies.
CT: That is true. Bodies are so weird! Bodies, materials, space, architecture, and landscape are just so related. You wouldn’t think of metal being this bio material, but essentially, it is atoms coming together to create something dense. If you splice solid things down, they become flexible and malleable and workable in the same way that you can knock down a mountain or break things down into debris. I associate everything with the same making, so I don’t really feel limited by material. I just assume you can break it down and excavate out of it the same way that you can a body or fibers. It can be super dense and difficult, but it’s not impossible. The possibilities are there.
TMM: For me, that’s where play comes in. We’re both dealing with heavy subjects, right? But art is this thing that I envision and think, How can I make that happen, despite our current state? How can I break the laws of nature and create this thing? (laughter)
CT: Right? Bodies are like that too! This current state it’s in, how can you start to alter it so that it fits a state you agree with? A state which is like you? I’m not opposed to plastic surgery at all; I invite those things. You should have the opportunity to live within a body that doesn’t feel imprisoning or be in spaces that don’t feel confining and restricting. You got to confront what was there first and then make the alterations.
TMM: Continuing to think aboutyour materials and their previous lives, I’m brought back to the column and doorframe. Doors provide security, historically, by controlling access, but also frequently appear as allegorical or metaphorical indications of change. How do you view the door or passageway?
Are they different from the window?
CT: When I’m dealing with windows, I’m allowing people to peer into space, but when I’m dealing with larger archi- tectural parts—things large enough to frame bodies—I noticed that I usually either entrap a body in it, or I duplicate parts of it so that it imitates limbs. Essentially those two towers were something that you stepped into to wear. The doorway encases the body as opposed to the window, which proj- ects you into a space.
I try to not really alter the scale of material, too. I have certain materials that I’m familiar with using right now, which are stair spindles, columns, steel and tin, embroidery thread, ventilation grates, and copper wire spools that are for welding machines. Some elements I can only blow up in scale to be big enough to be a portal for the eyes, as opposed to spindles and columns, which can form structures large enough to become a portal for a body, like a door.
TMM: The column on our own bodies would be our spine—that’s what gives us support, right? I’m thinking about the staircase spindle as safety. There’s so many facets of architec- ture that resemble supports that our body provides for itself. I enjoy that you’re not trying to create this most perplexing thing out of found wood. You’re retaining the original material from its previous environment, but it’s an altering or a disruption.
CT: Mm-hmm. Or a bringing together. TMM: Mm-hmm. A hybrid.
CT: Yes, a hybrid. (laughter) Wow, these questions are so interesting. That process might sound kind of formu- laic, but I have never broken it down. I didn’t realize that I had some kind of a formula, which means it might be time to change that.
TMM: No! There’s so much more you can mine from it. We all have one.
CT: Right? I didn’t know I had an actual system. That’s awesome.
TMM: I didn’t realize how much I was into material until I asked you all these questions. (laughter)
CT: You are into material. I saw your show. That was the first time I’ve seen all your work together at CAAM [California African American Museum]. And I was like, Oh, I didn’t know that you was like, interested in material that way, with garments and shoes actu- ally implicated in the work! But we’re materialists!
TMM: (laughter) I wanted to talk about your torched wall work, Macule (2022). I didn’t know if that one would be too personal. But I was enjoying the way that work was treated like skin, with a hole in the figure.
CT: Yeah, I made the decision last minute to extract that hole out of that figure. The figure is crouched over, and it has a huge hole in its stomach that I originally put there to collage a window made of resin into the body. But then I realized the hole is a voided space. We live in our bodies every single day, and not once have we ever seen our internal organs. They’re living in darkness, operating autonomously, involuntarily, with or without us. That part of us carries so much of our emotional encounters in our everyday— I know that I do if I’m having any tension in my life. But it’s such an unknown to me. It seems like a space of possibility—it’s a womb, it does all these different things. I thought it’d be so cheesy to just throw a window there when I’m already given what it is. So I cut it out completely and treated its surface. To give it depth and boundless- ness, like a world of its own, I extracted the wall to lead into this dark space. In terms of the skin-like quality, I tried to maximize the torch and give the fabric a tattooing effect to echo a venti- lation grate in this vast, hot desert. This was amplified because the torch was the main thing that built the landscape the figure is wandering in.
TMM: I was struck by Macule because, for me, experiences with trauma and voids have an atmosphere or a sentiment or a sound, so seeing that piece off the wall in the back made me think about the levels of meaning in the work. I also saw the hole as a generator. Maybe I’m getting too comic-book style,but a generator in a body, like an energy source, but also a recorder.
CT: A generator! Like Iron Man? (laughter)
TMM: Yeah! (laughter) With the wire spindles that come up in your work, they almost read as recording devices. I’m thinking of Metronome (Device I) (2022). It’s like a compass where one can trace the circular epicenter of what that void is. That’s another way you’re activating the space within the pres- ence of the sculptures, with the wall works, the burning on the walls, the tracing.
CT: I was looking at surrealism because I wanted to show this relation- ship to the real world while molding a new kind of reality. These works give the sense that they’re waiting to be tripped to activate something, and everything was to be used in this sonic- like synergistic situation—a dystopic space where life shouldn’t even be occurring. The aftermath of something. But I wanted to make sure that every- thing within this dystopia still felt like life was reverberating through it.
TMM: Being from the desert, so many people are like, Ugh, it’s just all barren or whatever. But it’s what I love about it. I love the perspective that you can see—the distance, the mountains. And there’s so much life in the desert. You just have to look for it. I’m seeing that in your use of wood. It was once a living thing. But also your mending or embroidering on textile—that has such a warm sentiment to it. Those are notions that bring life forth more.
CT: The vastness in the desert is mind blowing. Moving to Los Angeles and experiencing Joshua Tree for the first time and seeing Noah Purifoy’s installa- tion—he’s no longer here, but that stuff is like, Whoa, it is alive in there. That’s just such a gift to leave behind for people. It was the first experience I’ve had being in a space of detritus mate- rial. Some spiritual element is flowing through that entire exhibit. And that’s why the work is all in a desert; there is a sense of peace and vastness that feels hopeful. I was heavily influenced by visiting that site and knowing that life is happening there.