Surreal Society: Marika Thunder Interviewed

A painting with surreal, hyper-saturated colors of a group of young women, sitting on pedestals, some wearing crows. Behind them, an enormous US flag waves in the wind.
Marika Thunder, Cotillion #8, 2021. Oil on canvas. 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist and de boer, Los Angeles, CA.

I recently learned of Marika Thunder’s work through her exhibition at de boer gallery in East Los Angeles. After only one conversation, when we met at her spacious Brooklyn studio in March, it felt like I had known her for ages. Thunder, while a savvy global citizen, is also open about her vulnerability and gratitude, a refreshing mix. We realized that we share common concerns including how young women are objectified and commodified by the media, how substance abuse is ravaging this country, and how art might indeed provide amelioration for some of society’s ills.

Born to two artists in New York City, Thunder has already lived in several states—including Texas, California, Pennsylvania—and has also spent periods of time in Hungary, her mother’s native country. And yes, she speaks Hungarian. She began her career with a painting of Britney Spears, then moved on to a series called “Dress Up My Lindsay” based on collages of Lindsay Lohan that she had created as a nine-year-old. 

At present the artist works from photographs, which become the basis of surreal compositions that feel somehow otherworldly and yet strangely familiar. Thunder’s work, while rooted in a painting practice, is inspired by her childhood love of collage as well as myriad personal experiences. She originally worked with drawing and other visual mediums and has recently transitioned to oil. Recently on view at de boer, her “Cotillion” series, inspired by a real event from her adolescence, are edited and reconfigured in paintings that are a mix of surreal scenes and vibrant colors. The colors are inspired by Thunder’s use of inkjet color prints that she makes of the scanned photographs. She waits until the printer is low on ink so that the CYM colors take precedence over the black, resulting in a hallucinatory and obscured palette. While she doesn’t follow the printout religiously, it is used to predict unusual coloring in the paintings. Filled with pageantry, mystery, and color this new series marks a departure from the celebrity subject matter and towards a personal, introspective narrative. —Kathy Battista

Two individuals—one wearing a cape, crown, sash, and fan—walk across a stage, behind which a large image of an American flag is displayed on a screen.
Marika Thunder, Cotillion #6, 2021. Oil on canvas. 36 x 55 inches. Courtesy of the artist and de boer, Los Angeles, CA.

Kathy Battista Where does the theme of “Cotillion” come from? 

Marika Thunder It’s based on an event that happened in my life when I was sixteen and lived in Corpus Christi, Texas. My grandmother wanted me to participate in this cotillion event, which at the time was very unaligned with my developing identity. Not to mention I was going through my rebellious phase too. I just did it to make her happy. When I recently came across the photos my mother took of the dress rehearsal I knew I had to do something with them. 

KB Is it when you’re presented, like a debutant? 

MT I still don’t understand the whole structure of it, but there are phases. You take etiquette courses where you learn table manners and how to act like a “proper young lady.” I believe that when you graduate these etiquette courses there’s a final ceremony where you walk across the stage. Every girl’s outfit represents different parts of the Corpus Christi community. There was the symphony girl and the aquarium girl. But as a first-year person I just stood in the back of the stage with these other girls and wore a dress.

KB It looks really white to me. 

MT Definitely. A lot of the families, including mine, lived in Texas for multiple generations and have a historical connection of some sort to the city and are involved in the community somehow. Whether through founding a church or school, being on the board of the local symphony, aquarium, etc. 

KB How did you wind up in Texas if you were born here?

MT My dad’s family is from there. I moved there for a few years when I was fourteen. I was really serious about competitive swimming at the time. However, nothing could have prepared me for the culture shock I experienced [laughs].

Before a washed, purple and pink backgrounded stage, a blazing red and yellow cape is centered.
Marika Thunder, Cotillion #7, 2021. Oil on canvas. 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist and de boer, Los Angeles, CA.

KB Some of these Cotillion paintings remind me of drag culture.

MT Yes. Drag culture takes the beautiful components of showmanship and performance but recreates it and gives it a new meaning. Cotillion as an event was very showy but somehow still very repressed. I guess because the whole event is all about behaving “properly” and looking a certain way. Drag culture is able to cleverly satirize these more repressive elements.

KB I can’t believe you did one. I don’t know anyone who’s done that!

MT Yeah. And especially people who know me as a person, are like, “You?” What?”

KB I can imagine the kind of people who are into it could be a little bit frightening.

MT Yeah, I wasn’t friends with any of the girls in this thing. I had a hard time connecting to a lot of the people in the school since I came from an artsy background in New York City. So, aside from my swim team, I became friends with the delinquents. We lived and went to school in an interesting area, there were trailer parks and skate parks, but we were also by water so there were these canals you could kayak in by my house. It was actually really fun.

In this color-negative painting of a performer, kneeling on a stage, onlookers watch from behind curtains.
Marika Thunder, Cotillion #4, 2021. Oil on board. 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and de boer, Los Angeles, CA.

KB The color distortion in these paintings reminds me of a masquerade.

MT A lot of people see the faces as masks, sort of tying into the element of performance and fantasy.

KB Are there men in this event? 

MT They have the boys escort the girls across the stage. When I researched this, the cotillion ball originated from eighteenth century English and US tradition; it was to have these girls paired off with suitors.

KB And this giant flag backdrop, was that really there?

MT Oh, it was really there. 

KB Do you do the color distortion yourself?

MT I wait to print out the source photo when the printer is low on ink. 

KB How do you decide where there will be abstraction in the paintings?

MT Well that’s been my awakening and maturing as an artist. Before I sort of clung to photo-realism as a safety net to validate whether or not I was “good” at art. As a kid, I had that obsessive thing of making it “look like the picture.”

Because the printed photo reference is distorted, there’s already a layer of abstraction involved. I became very fascinated by the idea of creating a handmade simulacrum of a distorted photo of a personal experience. Conveying the idea of fragmented or fading memories. Just intuitively leaving certain parts unfinished or out. The Lindsay series had this with smudges and scribbles; letting the perfectly imperfect come out. I think that a lot of those choices are spiritual, channeling a creative divine or another realm, whether it’s conscious or not. Michael Jackson and Prince were really into this practice and it’s why we can almost unanimously agree their music sounds good and that they’re geniuses. 

KB There’s an aura to the distortion. You can see what’s going on, but you can’t quite get a handle on it. I would’ve never thought of it as a real cotillion.

MT That’s my favorite thing to hear from people, “If I didn’t know this was a cotillion event, then I would’ve thought it was _____.” Some people think it’s just a made up image from a dream which I love.

In this blurry, saturated painting, a person walks across a stage wearing a cape and holding a bouquet of flowers.
Marika Thunder, Cotillion #1, 2021. Oil on board. 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and de boer, Los Angeles, CA.

KB It’s very dreamlike. How did you get from Lindsay Lohan to this? 

MT Both are similar in regards to them dealing with developmental stages of life and examining the collective unconscious of how these institutions within the US may have affected us. The Lindsay series was really a cathartic process for me of looking back to childhood creations to find who I am at the core. I felt distanced from who I really was because I moved around so much during my formative years. Painting makes me feel like I was acknowledging who I am, and putting the pieces back together. “Cotillion” as a series expands more on class, tradition, gender roles, race, etc.

KB All the contrasts in the US, like, celebrity, beauty. The nation’s or the media’s obsession with young people is very weird.

MT Young women, especially. Getting them while they’re very young and then molding them into this character, in and out of acting. Making them malleable into whatever ideal is set for women. When Lindsay started slightly deviating from that image and struggling they immediately turned around to criticize and pick her apart in tabloids. Using her as this sacrificial lamb basically to just project everything on to and then profit off of her either succeeding or breaking down from it. It shows a very conspicuous hypocrisy and this kind of, “We’ll celebrate you until you do one thing wrong.” Wherever it takes to get the most engagement and profit from an audience. We see these child stars lose their innocence, and it parallels our childhood’s and not having the chance to be imaginative or make mistakes. I think the obsession with innocence comes from an unconscious mourning/grieving of losing our own.

KB What is next for you?

MT I have a few projects. The main one is paintings of this all-boys Yeshiva school. The Hasidic community is very protective of their members so I try to approach it as respectfully as I can. Rediscovering my Jewish background and examining the incredibly complex and fascinating mysticism, such as the Kabbalah, within the faith has been so impactful for me. 

I’m also working on some landscapes, both paintings as well as linoleum block prints. I’m in a printmaking class, and really enjoy learning the process and utilizing these different parts of my brain. Especially the carving the block, and “negating” from an image rather than adding. The color palette is much more limited, so there’s more attention to form and texture.

My paintings have taken a much more solemn turn both aesthetically and conceptually. I work in series and find that they’re very reflective of what I’m going through during that stage in my life. So to me these represent a sort of maturing and contemplative period for me. 

As for shows there are a few things lined up, I have a solo at Nina Johnson Gallery in January I’m absolutely ecstatic about. I have to pinch myself sometimes [laughs].

I’m just continuing to lean into this burst of creativity I’ve been experiencing and focusing on staying grounded and humble. 

Marika Thunder: Cotillion
de boer gallery, Los Angeles, LA
March 5 – April 16


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Author: Kathy Battista

Kathy Battista is a writer, educator, and a curator of exhibitions in museums, galleries, and nonprofits. Her research is primarily focused on cross generational feminist art, in particular performance and body-oriented practice. Most recently she has curated Everything Has Its Place at Sevil Dolmaci Gallery, Istanbul, you pinned me down like a butterfly on a wall for Ballon Rouge at Pablo’s Birthday, The Art of Fashion at Fountain House Gallery New York, Escape Attempts at Shulamit Nazarian Gallery, Los Angeles, and E.A.T.: Experiments in Art and Technology at the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Austria. She has authored numerous books, including: New York New Wave: The Legacy of Feminist Art in Emerging Practice (2019) and Renegotiating the Body: Feminist Art in 1970s London (2012). Battista also co-edited (with Bryan Faller) a book on artist estates and foundations, Creative Legacies: Critical Issues in Artist Estates, for Lund Humphries (2020).