Enter ThugPop’s Fantasy Universe
Visual Artist Christen Mooney on Black Gay Artistry, Novelty, and Self-Love
- Photography: Myles Loftin
- Text: Ruth Gebreyesus
On the morning I speak to Christen Mooney—aka ThugPop—he’s preparing for his first art installation, to take place at Office Magazine’s Newsstand on Canal Street. The visual artist is in Washington D.C., where he’s been based since leaving the noise of New York to quiet his mind last spring. After a couple of months in D.C., Mooney made Cooning For Cash, an emotionally evocative series of woven tapestries, each featuring black men in the nude, images Mooney pulled from Bob Mizer, who originally photographed the men for his Athletic Model Guild in the 70s. In his rendition, Mooney overlapped slightly varied shots of each man, their arms up in leather straps, their faces swaying between stern and weary.
Though Cooning For Cash was his debut as a visual artist, the 26-year-old has been at work for a while. Born in Staten Island, Mooney’s family hopped around the East Coast and Chicago, settling in Baltimore during his teens. For college, he enrolled in fashion school in New York, but dropped out for jobs at Opening Ceremony, V Files, and later, Dover Street Market. That’s how Mooney met Shayne Oliver, the designer behind the venerated streetwear brand, Hood By Air, who brought him into his dynamic crew to walk shows, style, and (in Mooney’s words) serve as “an in-house muse.” The most educational experience he had turned out to be watching Oliver’s creative process unfold.
Ultimately, fashion didn’t satisfy Mooney’s creative impulse, so he kept searching. In his exploration, he found himself drawn to the photographic depiction of bodies like his—black and male—leading him to black erotic cultural repositories from Mizer, Sierra Domino Studio, and the work of pioneering writers and activists like Joseph Beam and Marlon Riggs. The ThugPop universe both complicates and celebrates these works.
From his ThugPop moniker, the artist now releases collages and collectible objects that are at once naive and cunning in their assemblage. In my favorite of his works, a model named Corey from Black Inches, a black erotic publication, is in repose on a couch, his left hand comes forward from behind his thighs. In place of where Corey’s hand might land, there’s a pink and white birthday cake, and an icing inscription reads “I Love Myself.” Both whimsical and heartening, Mooney’s tone is uniquely his. Here, I ask him about his process, his inspiration, and the self-love ethos that reverberates in his art.
Why did you leave New York?
I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. Fashion opportunities paid my bills, but I was feeling super underwhelmed creatively. There was such a void when Hood by Air went on hiatus, because I was able to get mentorship and do my own thing there. But Grace and Shayne helped me have the confidence to make work, just by talking to them and really seeing how they are artists themselves.
What’s your creative process?
Before I started really creating anything, it was really a meditative process, of looking within myself and trying to find self-love. Looking inward, I tried to find the images that I related to, images that featured black bodies. Most of the images that I found, there was [often] a white lens on a black body. I also found the Bob Mizer photographs that I repurposed for Cooning for Cash, which really spoke to me. I'm always looking for myself within my work. I'm always trying to express self-love, or inspire an ethos of self acceptance—which is where Marlon Riggs came in, because he's one of many inspirations within black gay artistry. For me, he was kind of the first person that I saw that was making work for black gay men. I want to carry on that idea.
I'm just trying to be more Toni Morrison about my work nowadays
Where are you looking for these references?
It depends. Mostly digitally—I'm kind of scouring. It started with this one Tumblr and then comb[ing] through the internet to find the exact photograph. I found databases. It all sort of feels digital, but I have bought archives [too].
A lot of my collage pieces are from Black Inches, which I believe is not the only, but the most [recent], magazine that features black bodies that a black man also photographed. I'm trying to only use that lens, but it's not exclusive to that. I'm just trying to be more Toni Morrison about my work nowadays.
When I'm in New York, I'm mostly creating new works, like my own photography and video work. But I've always wanted to go to the Schomburg Center and see what they have on black male bodies and eroticism. It's an area that's super taboo. I was trying to research black homoerotic film and black homoerotic filmmakers, and there's like nobody. Which I find hard to believe.
When you're saying black lens on black bodies, is that in response to non-black lenses on black folks?
I watched this talk with Amy Sall and Lina Viktor at the Schomburg Center. Amy was saying that the white lens, is kind of like a gun to black bodies. The first colonizers came and took these pictures and took them back to Europe or somewhere, and ever since then, it's been a visual war on black bodies. And then when I really got into researching, it was always a white lens on a black body that was more erotic. I don't really know what to do about that but besides use my own lens and my own artistic expression. Kids 50 years from now can find my work and be like, “Oh hey, there are more works than these white lenses on these black bodies.”
Do you consider yourself to be aware and present in your body?
I think I'm aware of my body, but I live in a kind of fantasy as well, and that comes up in my work. That's why I like bows, rhinestones, cowrie shells and all that stuff. It's me trying to put myself in my own fantasy.
Why did you decide to use household objects like tapestries and pillows as mediums for your work?
A lot of work is really nice to look at, and art collectors are looking to invest in more pictorial work, but I really want to make things that are accessible for the people that I know. Things that people could instantly buy into. I just wanted everything to be super functional and super relatable, things that people could actually use, not just have in a house to collect dust. I'm [also] really into novelty.
What did your bedroom look like when you were younger?
I moved around a lot, but my mom always tried to make things special. When I was in high school, I had two rooms. One room, I remember being super whimsical. My mom painted it orange and then she had Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling. I guess I’ve always been super expressive. I used to cut up magazines—like Vibe magazine always had really cool pictures of like Cassie or whatever—so I always put those up in my room.
I've always been trying to figure out artistry. [When] I made my first blog in highschool, I wouldn't say I had a lot of followers or anything, but I really, really gave a fuck about it. It was called Cosmic Collection. I remember collabing with people on the header of the blog and being on Photoshop and learning all that I [could] about Photoshop. Having this entity to go back to when I got home from school, you know? That was my first artistic expression on the internet.
What does your studio look like now?
Again, I have two rooms, which is so weird to think. But I've divided it—one room is digital, one room is analog. I have one room for creating collages and my canvas work. And then I have another room for creating more digital work. I go to New York to create any original photography for video work, which is what I'll be debuting on my website.
Tell me about your second series of collectibles, Dreamworks of an Ethereal Mind. You had a film collage as a part of that collection, which carried the same spirit as your other collage.
That was kind of my first time with a film camera. I made these items that would be for sale and I knew that I wanted to be more insular and create everything myself. Solange is a really big inspiration of mine, the way that she creates, has her hands in many different pots. And with Dreamworks from an Ethereal Mind, I tried to have my hands in as many pots as possible so that I could expand my practice. And that work, it was the first time I had asked people to collaborate with me, with being in front of my lens and them lending their time. I've always wanted to be more behind the camera and put the artistry in that way. So Dreamworks was kind of a dream to work on. No pun intended.
What’s inspiring you lately?
Right now I'm really into dessert, food. That's probably why I made plates. The newer work will feature a print I made of Romero, but he's actually in jail right now. But in the back of my mind, it's always this fantasy.
What does that fantasy look like?
It kind of looks like my collages, where everything is all pink. We just eat desserts all day. It kind of looks like a Sofia Coppola film, but there's only black bodies present.
- Photography: Myles Loftin
- Text: Ruth Gebreyesus
- Date: October 30, 2019