Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête @Aperture

JTF (just the facts): A total of 42 black and white and color photographs (or sets of photographs), variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. The works on view include c-prints, selenium toned fiber prints, digital Polaroid prints, and collages on cardboard that include color photographs and other materials, all made between 2001 and 2015. Physical sizes range from roughly 4×5 to 60×50 (or reverse), and are available in editions of 3, 5,or 6, when not unique. The show also includes a full room installation (where several of the photographs are on view), with a TV running a digital video made by artist (23:03 run time, from 2012).

A second exhibit of works by other photographers is shown on the interior walls of the gallery space. The following photographers have been included in this mini-exhibit, with the number of works on view, their dates and processes as background:

  • Derrick Adams: 1 digital c-print, 2012
  • Renée Cox: 1 gelatin silver print, 1993
  • LaToya Ruby Frazier: 2 gelatin silver prints, 2002, 2006
  • Lyle Ashton Harris: 1 c-print, 2015, and 1 Polaroid, 2002
  • Deana Lawson: 2 archival pigment prints, 2013, 2015
  • Zanele Muholi: 1 gelatin silver print, 2014
  • Malick Sidibé: 2 gelatin silver prints, 2001, 2002
  • Xaviera Simmons: 1 c-print, 2010
  • Hank Willis Thomas: 2 digital c-prints, 2010
  • Carrie Mae Weems: 1 digital c-print, 2006

A monograph of these bodies of work (including both exhibits) was recently published by Aperture (here).

(Installations shots of both exhibits below.)

Comments/Context: This smart early career survey of the work of painter and photographer Mickalene Thomas is the kind of show that cements the growing reputation of an important artist. While Thomas’ eye catching large scale paintings of confident black women encrusted with sparkly glitter and rhinestones might be her most recognized artworks, this exhibit takes us back to the beginning of her use of photography and offers a careful examination of her step-by-step exploration of the medium over the past decade. And although the show isn’t arranged with strict attention to chronology, a closer look uncovers a clear progression in her work, and the iterative construction of an increasingly original artistic voice.

When Thomas initially took up the camera as a tool (during her MFA years at Yale), she pointed it at herself, creating several alter-ego personas (with a nod to Cindy Sherman) that she used to test some of the codes of how black women had been and were being portrayed. Using her own body as her model, she preened like a Jet centerfold in a tiger striped bathing suit, donned long plastic green fingernails and red lipstick, and sat legs splayed in a halter top jumpsuit wearing a blonde wig. In each early picture, she was unpacking various derived stereotypes of black beauty, from 70s era pinup seduction to Lil’ Kim-style hip-hop boldness, and trying them on as overlays to her own self image.

Soon Thomas took herself out of the picture altogether and instead turned her attention to her mother, placing her in elaborately staged-settings filled with brashly conflicting fabric patterns (from animal prints and bold geometrics to dated florals and African textiles), 70s décor and furniture, and old school wood paneling. Here she tried out a series of poses echoing classical nude odalisques, sultry centerfolds, and confident businesswomen, continuing to deconstruct the definitions of black beauty, but with an understated gaze of quiet admiration, seeing both the woman her mother was and the ones she might have been.

In more recent years, Thomas has further expanded her set of big-afroed models (and muses, as the title of the show would imply) to include lovers, friends, and other tangential acquaintances, amplified her settings with even more cacophonous combinations of colors, patterns, and symbolic period keepsakes like record albums, framed pictures, plastic flowers, and ceramic figurines, and made more overt compositional references to Manet and other painters. Her gaze has shifted and matured as well, bravely digging further into the nuanced complexities of desire, glamour, and overt sexuality. While her sitters are often taking on a role, there is a simmering physical tension in most of the pictures, where nakedness (of body and gaze) moves from cool languor to something hotter and more urgent, and transgender reversals add yet another twist to the posing and looking.

Thomas’ inventive collages provide the artistic bridge between her photography and her painting. Even in their most densely layered forms, with multiple models and a dazzling array of elaborately conflicting patterns, her photographs still capture a realistic depiction of figures in space. But in her collages, that inflexible truth is broken, and she can bring materials together in much more complicated spatial arrangements. Her cut-out models seem to float in an almost Cubist world of multiple perspectives, where scale, depth/flatness, and texture (including scraps of vintage wallpaper and fake fur) are in constant shifting dissonance. There is something loose and improvisational about these brashly exploratory collages, which is then honed down as Thomas translates (and effectively reflattens) them into large-scale paintings (as an aside, just one big painting would have been a welcome addition to this exhibit, if only as the endpoint to the conceptual line of thinking).

This exhibit is physically organized like a set of nesting dolls, with a vibrant installation at the center, works by other photographers (gathered under the title tête-à-tête) in the middle, and Thomas’ own works on the periphery. At first glance, interrupting your own retrospective with a selection of works by other artists might seem like a distracting mistake, but in this case, Thomas has effectively used these photographs to set her own context, thereby controlling the parallels we see between her work and that which surrounds it (the two largely face each other, so the back and forth is expedited). We see connections to Malick Sidibé’s easy going use of pattern, Hank Willis Thomas’ stereotypical advertising poses, Renée Cox’ confident (and challenging) celebration of a strong pregnant female body, and the efforts of Xaviera Simmons and Carrie Mae Weems to introduce a strong black woman into contexts that don’t entirely welcome her. This approach of bringing your inspirations and influences inside the tent has the effect of creating a fluid sense of community, where a group of like-minded artists are working to reclaim what it means to be a contemporary black woman, each adding his or her own perspectives to the larger question. As a mechanism for provoking further dialogue (and directing that discussion), it works quite successfully, and does so without diluting the impact of Thomas’ own work.

What makes Mickalene Thomas’ stylized photographic works durably interesting is that she has found way to push hard on the issues of race, gender, and sexuality in ways that are grounded in power and strength. Her glorious women are poised and self-assured, with the kind of confident conviction of mind and body that is assertively attractive, and their vibrant surroundings give them a place to express that charismatic individuality. This exhibit is evidence of an artist gathering momentum, and as her photographs get more complex and richly layered, she is infusing the genre of the black female portrait with thoughtful freshness and vitality.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are only indirectly for sale. No specific prices were immediately available and I was encouraged to connect with Thomas’ galleries to follow up; she is represented by Lehmann Maupin in New York (here), Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects (here), and Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris (here). A handful of Thomas’ photographic works have appeared in the secondary markets in recent years. Prices for these few transactions have ranged between roughly $8000 and $24000.

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