Kristen Thiele Paints Hollywood's Golden Age
BY BRETT SOKOL
BLST (2011), from Thiele’s After Hours series, on view at North Miami’s Bridge Red Studios/Project Space
|Kristen Thiele in her studio|
|Thiele works on GRLA in her North Miami studio|
|PBRW (2011), from the After Hours series|
Some kids are handed a doll, others are given toy soldiers. As a child, Kristen Thiele received her father’s abandoned paintings. “He would let me work on canvases that he thought had failed—he just gave them to me to play with,” Thiele says with a chuckle, recalling the time she got in trouble for jumping the gun and painting over a canvas her dad was still laboring over.
These days, Thiele buys her own materials, though her father is still within shouting distance— the two have adjoining North Miami studios. Of course, growing up as the daughter of two of Miami’s best-known artists during the ’70s and ’80s —painter-turned-sculptor Robert Thiele and painter Shirley Henderson—one might see Kristen as simply carrying on in the family business. Indeed, she’s quietly become one of Miami’s most impressive artists in her own right, crafting figurative paintings that are technically accomplished while still full of wonder, particularly in her latest series, After Hours, which plumbs Depression-era Hollywood to capture the more ambiguous moods underlying that period’s classic screwball comedies.
That journey took some twists. After receiving a full art scholarship to the University of Miami in 1986, Thiele found the academic life to be creatively stifling. An offbeat cultural scene was percolating on South Beach, complete with punk rock shows in pre-gentrified Deco buildings and impromptu drag balls. Yet while the Beach was slowly transitioning from its Cocaine Cowboys-era into SoHo by the Sea, little of that spirit was making its way across the bay to the carefully manicured Coral Gables environs of UM.
“People thought I was kind of a nut on campus—it’s Sunshine U, right?” Thiele says with a laugh. “Everybody’s blonde and tan while I’m this crazy girl with a shaved head.” After two years Thiele left school, moving into an artist-filled studio complex on the Beach’s Española Way. By day she’d paint, by night she’d cocktail waitress at the now legendary Scratch bar. In between, she taught herself to play the bass guitar. Still, although the atmosphere may have been charged, “it didn’t feel like any of it was reaching beyond Miami,” Thiele explains. “We were living on an island—literally—in every sense.”
Thiele decamped north in 1992 to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. However, her painting took a backseat to her bass. Motorhome, a psychedelia- drenched band she formed with fellow Institute students, quickly graduated from basement rehearsals onto the pages of the Chicago Tribune. Thanks to the local major-label feeding frenzy sparked by the success of that city’s Smashing Pumpkins, Motorhome was rapidly invested with next-big-thing status.
“We were getting cold calls from different labels offering us a deal without ever having seen us play—just based on the buzz,” Thiele says. The band didn’t bite. “All these labels were just trying to pick up whoever they could, banking that somebody was going to make it. But if you get onto a major label and they drop you, you’re dead in the water.” Exchange the guitars for paintbrushes, and it’s a commercially overheated milieu that sounds eerily like Miami in the buildup to and initial wake of Art Basel’s arrival. In fact, jokes Thiele, after personal issues fractured Motorhome and she eventually returned to South Florida in 2000, “in Chicago it always seemed like everyone was in a band. Now in Miami it seemed like everyone was an artist!”
Credit the Motorhome experience—and the seesawing contrast of being hometown heroes yet performing for fewer than 10 people in North Carolina—with keeping Thiele thinking long-term amid Basel’s market mania.
At first that meant a playful exploration of romance and social status via anthropomorphized animals. The whimsy soon turned wry as Thiele began transposing her characters into Old Masters settings. Most recently, a TV run-in with the 1934 film The Thin Man sparked a full-on obsession with Old Hollywood. In her ongoing After Hours works, eagle-eyed viewers may spot backdrops from 1936’s My Man Godfrey, but don’t expect to spy that film’s William Powell. It’s the mise-en-scène that captivates her: “The ornamentation, the flocked wallpaper, the crystal candelabras—it’s visually sumptuous. Painting known actors would take away from that idea, so I cut their heads off, turn them away, or have them sleeping.”
This often creates an ominous air, as if a troubled backstory lies just beneath Thiele’s brushstrokes. “I like the idea that there is excess cloaked in propriety in all these movies. There’s this tension between what people are doing and how it’s being done. Everyone’s dressed well and the surroundings are beautiful, but basically they’re kids playing at being adults—drinking too much and dancing till dawn.” And the harsh truths of the Depression which lurked just off-screen? Or the no less jarring disconnect in today’s Miami, where “kids playing at being adults” seems to define our civic life? “That artificiality is what the Golden Age of Hollywood is all about,” Thiele counters. And her take on today’s glamorous nightcrawlers? She flashes a knowing smile: “It’s that same duality of artifice and reality that holds my fascination.” Works in the After Hours series are on exhibit at Bridge Red Studios/Project Space, 12425 NE 13th St., North Miami, 305-978-4856; e-mail: email@example.com
PHOTOGRAPHs BY JIM ARBOGAST (PORTRAIT, thiele in her studio)
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.