New Jersey-born, Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas is best known for her richly textured, rhinestone-encrusted paintings of African-American women and bright, collaged interiors. Lesser known is her photography, which she’s long considered a crucial component of her art practice. Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête, now on view at the Aperture Foundation, focuses on the artist’s dazzling, supersaturated photographs, taken over the past 15 years, as well as the work of her creative influences.
Hung around the gallery’s perimeter are Thomas’s large-scale photographs of her black female muses, including herself and her mother, whom she began photographing as an MFA student at Yale, as well as friends and lovers. Thomas is working in the midst of much crucial discussion in the art world about underrepresentation and misrepresentation of black bodies and female bodies in the western art canon and the contemporary media. “By selecting women of color, I am quite literally raising their visibility and inserting their presence into the conversation,” Thomas said in a recent interview. “By portraying real women with their own unique history, beauty and background, I’m working to diversify the representations of black women in art.” Hyperfeminized and hyperpowerful, in disco-era fashions, some women lounge odalisque-like on couches, while others in modelesque poses stare directly at the camera. Thomas draws as much on Manet’s nudes as on the 1970s black-is-beautiful movement (think images of supermodel Beverly Johnson and blaxploitation film star Vonetta McGee).
These hyperreal images have all the glamor and amped up sexuality as artful fashion photography — both Thomas and her mother had modeling gigs — but none of the airbrushing or homogeneity of subject endemic to glossy magazines. Instead, the photos question art historical traditions of objectifying women: In “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: les trois femmes noires,” a wry feminist pastiche on Manet’s notorious 1862 painting, one woman squints, her chin propped in her hand, assessing the viewer assessing her.
Muse is a show that lays bare the artist’s process in a refreshingly nonlinear way. The curation, which consists of four distinct parts in a kind of nesting doll arrangement, lets the viewer draw her own connections between Thomas’s work in various mediums and that of her influences. On a back wall, you then see these photographs sliced up and rearranged in a series of collages. Doctored with bright cut paper shapes, glitter, and fabric snips, these images take on kaleidoscopic dimensions. Thomas’s jazzy photomontages of women’s limbs and facial features can be construed as commentary on how female bodies are brutally picked apart in contemporary visual culture. But the social commentary in her work is never heavy-handed or preachy; her approach throughout is both playful and political.
Then there is the tête-à-tête: a selection of work, curated by Thomas, by her artistic influences, including Carrie Mae Weems, Ruby LaToya Frasier, Hank Willis Thomas, and Derrick Adams. On the whole, these photographs are quieter and more subdued than Thomas’s in terms of color and composition — for example, Frasier’s “Grandma Ruby Holding her Babies,” a black-and-white photograph of an elderly woman in a nightgown holding dolls. But many clearly share her unique takes on broad subjects, including race, gender and femininity, beauty, and social presentations of self.
At the center of the gallery is an installation that recreates the suburban rec room studio set in which Thomas staged many of her photographs. It’s clad in maximalist patterns —animal print rugs, Marimekko-esque upholstery, wood-paneled walls, crocheted tapestries — that echo the New Jersey home in which Thomas grew up. In this installation, you see how the artist approaches the staging of photography itself as a kind of three-dimensional collage, using wallpaper, upholstery, clothing, and makeup as media.
A vintage television set plays Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, Thomas’s 2012 documentary short about her first muse, her mother, Sandra Bush, whom Thomas often calls Mama Bush. Wan, at the end of her life, she talks candidly about her struggles with addiction and marital troubles. It’s a moving piece, and its place at the center of the show casts Bush as the spiritual core of Thomas’s work, her mother as creator, the muse that all the others followed.
Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête continues at Aperture Gallery (547 W 27th Streer, 4th floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 17.