JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 photographic works, alternately framed and unframed, and hung against white and decorated walls in the main gallery space, the smaller project gallery, and the office area. All of the works are rhinestones on dye sublimation prints, made in 2023. The works are sized roughly 15×12, 17×14, 28×28, 29×28, 29×29, 31×32, 59×48, 61×49, 61×50, 63×58, 68×50, 69×56, 70×59, or 73×59 inches, and are available in editions of 3. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: The exterior window facing the street at Mickalene Thomas’s current gallery show is covered with adhesive vinyl scraps, the kind we might imagine finding on the floor of her studio after a busy period of scissor work. Cutouts, fragments, and leftovers in various colors and patterns hover in space, seemingly announcing to the passersby outside that Thomas has once again turned back to collage.
The contemporary photography world would certainly like to pull Thomas into the tighter orbit of the photo community and prominently label her a photographer, but since graduating from the MFA program at Yale in 2005, she has not only built up a notable career with her camera, she has continually expanded her practice out to making related works in various forms of painting and collage. Collage actually shows up early in her artistic history, in the mid 2000s, with photocollages that bring together her own staged photographs of Black female models in elaborately curated interiors (often filled with album covers and other cultural associations) with various other scavenged patterns, fabrics, animal prints, and papers. Her early results surrounded her muses with eye-popping color and energy, creating brashly overlapped layers of patterning and interlocked arrangements of cut edges and angles. In the years since, collage has never left Thomas’s artistic toolbox, and she has slowly expanded and evolved her techniques, extending them across to the medium of paint, where her large-scale silkscreens have incorporated her remixed cutting and layering of textures and added additional embellishments and mark making possibilities.
Thomas’s new collages come back to photography as a primary source, albeit in the form of appropriated archival imagery as the central inspiration. This show pairs two bodies of work, one re-using Black female nudes found in the calendars of Jet magazine (in the late 1970s and early 1980s) and the other re-interpreting related imagery from Nus Exotique (a French publication from the 1950s).
Seduction and sexuality lie at the center of these collages, in a more direct way than much of Thomas’s earlier work – while she had employed alluring nudes and semi-nudes in many of her previous works, these collages feel like an exercise in wrestling with these historical softcore images and forcing herself to come to terms with the inherent push and pull between beauty and exploitation that they represent. In the Jet series, each collage is centered around a large scale nude drawn from a particular month in the calendar (the titles of the works reference the month and year, as in “October 1981”.) Presumably the original images were in color, but Thomas has fragmented the nudes into sharply sliced pieces, some of which she has retinted in monochrome black-and-white. She has then re-assembled the full bodies from these scraps, like putting together pieces of a Cubist puzzle, or more negatively, building a woman out of random parts. Many of the models have an easy going flair and playfulness which seems designed to have felt personal and approachable, but Thomas’s collaged reconstructions disrupt that simple seduction, turning them back into aggregated, visually consumed bodies, and opting for something more layered and complicated that acknowledges some of the complexities embedded in the original scenes.
Around these nudes, Thomas has arranged a dense compendium of interleaved textures, patterns, and colors reminiscent of her earlier works, which in a typical paper collage would have taken the form as torn or cut scraps. Here the scraps have been photographed and printed on aluminum, giving them a sculptural heft and rigidity, as well as a tight crispness of edge, particularly if we think of these works as wall sculptures; some have a glossy sheen while others are matte metallic, recreating everything from marbled paper to the whorled grain of wood, with additional tactile stops at graph paper, gauzy linen, zebra skin, hanging draperies, and yellow lined composition sheets. While not overtly referenced, it seems possible that some of the textures (like the shards of carpeting and wood paneling) could have come from the original Johnson Publishing Company building in Chicago, where the Jet offices were located.
On top of these compositions, Thomas has overlaid a range of gestural markings, meticulously executed in colored rhinestones glued to the surface of the images. Often, her annotations seem designed to amplify the bodies, adding volume to hair, outlining hips, breasts, lips, and fingers, or more generally simplifying the bodies into line drawings almost like caricatures. Other marks are more compositional, adding dense areas of squiggly decoration, like yet another texture that can be used to balance the arrangement of the visual pieces. Together, the marks feel like overt interventions or re-interpretations, with Thomas taking a rhinestone pencil to these nudes and exaggerating or embellishing their contours. At first, these marks feel altogether playful and improvisational, but their lingering mood drifts toward something more psychologically complex, where Thomas is commenting on the way these women have been reduced to curvy approximations of Black femininity.
In the side room, a group of smaller collages take shape inside relatively deep gold frames, the spatial dynamics now contained in that limited space instead of free flowing on the wall. These works start from the Nus Exotique source material and have been executed with more of a sense of closeness and intimacy. The same general formula applies – collages of bodies crafted from image scraps and textural surroundings, with rhinestone surface additions. What’s different is that in some cases, the rhinestones have been used as a sparkly (but surprisingly understated) border to the scraps, accenting the edges and formal shapes in the assemblages. The frames also allow for the white negative space to be used more sculpturally, where empty depth drops away and shadows are cast (depending on the light sources and the angle of viewing). The resulting collages have a different kind of presence than their larger cousins, paring things down to fewer compositional elements and drawing the viewer into a more measured but somehow sharpened interaction. Perhaps the constraints of the frames prevented Thomas’s artistic problem solving from adding more and expanding, forcing her back toward selecting only those elements that were absolutely necessary.
Both of these collage efforts are powerful because they ask us to explicitly think about Black femininity as a construction. Formally, it’s clear that Thomas’s collages have become more sophisticated, and with these new works, she’s channeled that expertise that into more subtle tension and friction. From afar, these works are blingy and eye-catchingly decorative, with plenty of beautiful women peering down from the walls, but up close, the story is more complicated and conflicted, with enough unease simmering below the surface to give these collages some durable bite.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $48000 and POR. Thomas’s photographic work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with recent prices ranging between $4000 and $190000.