Mickalene Thomas strategically presented her amazing work to an almost all white press gathering (one Asian came from Microsoft). MUSE: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête á tête accompanied by a publication of the same name by the prestigious Aperture Press, features large portraits, small collages, smaller Polaroids, and videos along with the work of other artists important to the artist. Thomas spoke of the importance of community. I was impressed by the artist’s humility, her respect for other artists, and her understated presentation, in spite of her superstar status.
At the entrance to the exhibition, the artist re-created her living room/studio including an old TV monitor playing a video about her mother at the center. Indeed, her mother, who died shortly after the video was completed, animated the exhibition as a whole. Thomas carefully outlined her relationship with her mother as well as the making of the video. We have come a long way from Whistler’s somber Mother!
Both she and her mother were fashion models, sometimes in partnership. Certainly, the artist’s sense of presentation, display, color, pattern and sheer style echoes that perspective. However, Thomas takes it much further with subtle layers of meanings and references in every work.
In the “living room” and in the gallery itself we were surrounded by Thomas’s bold, frontal head and shoulder portraits of her beautiful black friends, as well as those of friends and lovers lounging luxuriantly on sofas. But, in the press preview, she made nary a reference to sex, sexuality, gender or even blackness. We learned about her techniques, her heroes, her friends. The small scale of the Polaroids and collages, the studies for larger works, are the foundation for the huge photo-paintings we saw recently at the Seattle Art Museum, but there are no shiny sequins here.
I was so glad that on the following morning, I went to a second event that was billed as a “salon talk” with performance artist Christa Bell and poet Anastacia-Renée. It was described as “designed to be a safe space for an intra-community conversation among Black women and Black gender non-conforming folks, this will be an outdoor, salon-style gathering. Facilitators will present a family reunion-inspired approach to generate a warm and creatively conducive environment for discussing core themes that emerge in the artwork of Thomas and tête á tête.”
In spite of being I am a white woman, Christa Bell, a well-known performance artist, graciously welcomed me. Instead of discussion, we played hand games, both with a single partner and collectively, and then Bell and Anastacia-Renée invited us to lie on patterned quilts on the ground while we ate some snacks—Le Dejeuner sur L’herbe! Thomas’s iconic work Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires reworks the famous Manet painting, and now we relived it. In MUSE, we saw how the artist creates her monumental works through dozens of studies in collage, photographs and a combination of the two.
But the main result of the “salon” was to allow us to actually experience the female solidarity that appears in every work by Thomas. Of course, we know that the artist took hundreds of photographs of each of these women, and they had to work hard to look so relaxed, but during the salon, luxurious sensuality came to us from within, rather than from outside.
As you go through the exhibition, allow yourself to feel it as well as to see it. The lounging women live in their own pattern filled settings, all created by the artist. Under the artifice, behind the masks, the aloofness, the distant gazes, we know there is a whole world of love and caring. The density of the patterns amplifies the sensual even as it blocks our access.
Mickalene Thomas carefully poses her models in the midst of dizzying colors, textures and spaces as she presents a private world for public consumption. That contradiction is her strength. Just as at the press conference she said little about the actual subject of the exhibition, her work exists on many levels according to your perspective. Embedded in every scene are references to black culture, black music and personal details. The fabrics themselves tell stories, and in the recreation of her studio, many objects connect directly to her mother.
Downstairs at the Henry (to September 9) trans-disciplinary artist Demian DinéYazhi, a young transgender Navajo artist, addresses intersections of land, uranium mining, contamination, and the cultural distortions and deaths that result from colonization. Recipient of the 2017 Brink Award, Demian DinéYazhi’s riveting multimedia installation includes traditional slides, sculpture, and video: at the entrance we read (in part):
“By entering this space you have agreed
To become a lifelong agent
And environmental injustice
You have agreed to forfeit your racist misconceptions
of Indigenous identity & respect the sacredness
of Indigenous traditional practices”
With slight editing, this agreement could also apply to Mickalene Thomas’s exhibition. Her proud, black, sensual, self-possessed women refute all stereotypes of history, media and popular culture. The artist will present a lecture at the Henry in September (check the website at henryart.org for time and date).
Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington
July 14 – September 30, 2018
~Susan Noyes Platt