Walking through the corridor of Mickalene Thomas’s studio in Brooklyn is like being transported to a mini version of the sort of collection of African American art you expect to see at a big gallery. At least, that’s how it feels as Thomas’s business manager, Susan Grogan, takes me on a tour of the space during a video call in late August. But far from being the servants and erotic figures so often seen in such exhibitions, the Black women in Thomas’s paintings are strong, elegant figures covered in vibrant colors and glittering rhinestones. Draped in fashionable fabrics and at times topless, these models, with their steady gaze and self-assertive poses, exude confidence which both causes viewers to become transfixed and compels them to shy away. Since her 2009 debut, her provocative works have stunned the art world, exalting femininity and LGBTQ and Black identities, and examining how Black bodies, especially women’s, are represented in art.
This autumn, having laid low for “a couple of years, because of Covid and all that”, Thomas returns with one of the biggest projects of her career, presenting her work at Lévy Gorvy’s galleries in New York City, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. She is also showing 10 new pieces at Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris, a long-time partner gallery. Collectively titled Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the shows feature new paintings, installations, and video works. Taking inspiration from Sigmund Freud’s 1920 essay of the same name, the exhibition features work that alludes to her artistic influences, and explores sexuality, respectability, politics, and the notion of “how what we deem acceptable is completed by so many different things within our environment”.
The first of the four exhibitions opened last month in New York City, and debuts her latest large-scale paintings from her Jet series. They recontextualize Black women’s images from the pin-up calendars of the vintage Jet magazine, a publication that promoted progressive African American cultural and political ideas. Later this month, the gallery in London’s Mayfair will show the Jet Blue series, pieces also based around the magazine’s images that redefine beauty for a contemporary audience. Opening in October, Paris’s Resist focuses on female Black American civil rights activists from the 1960s to the present day. Also in October, Hong Kong’s Tête de Femme, which pays tribute to predecessors such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, will feature recent and never-before-seen works.
While the subjects are diverse, the shows are interconnected. “The Black female body is the center of all that [I am portraying], even though the paintings are completely different,” Thomas says. “Using Resist as a component in relation to some of the conceptual stuff that Jet magazine was harboring connects all these bodies of work. When you think about Tête de Femme in Hong Kong, where the series’ abstract faces are still related to the Black body, they’re paintings of faces [of] my various models ... It’s really important for my bodies of work to have conceptual threads but be executed differently.”
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