Friday, February 7, 2020

In Search of Beauty







The title of the exhibition Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires gives the key to Thomas's latest show  at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. For the art lovers who visited Mickalene Thomas: Waiting on a Prime-Time Star at the Newcomb Art Museum two years ago, it feels like an update with the display of more recent works. First time viewers can appreciate the whole gamut of the artist's practice including her paintings, photographs, videos, films and iconic "tableaux".

Located on the building's first floor, the exhibition starts with a large painting facing the visitor at the entrance. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010, features three black women and the shadow of a sculpture from Matisse in the background in place of Manet's four subjects. Inspired by a photograph shot in the sculpture garden at MoMA, the work underwent several stages: cutting, collaging, painting with acrylic, oil, enamel, adding rhinestones (reference to pointillism according to the artist) to reach the final composition. Already displayed in a number of venues, it has brought in mainly positive reviews and the imposing figures succeed in making the visitor blink under their bold stare.

Following this masterpiece, Me as Muse, 2016, provides a very intimate encounter with the artist through a twelve-monitor video installation featuring images of her naked body intermingled with those of Western paintings depicting bare females, Saartjie Baartman (the Ottentot Venus) and brightly colored African textiles. Unabashed, the artist rejuvenates the myth of the nude and the canons of beauty.

The front of the gallery is occupied by a living-room, an invitation to curl up on a sofa and read a book from the selection of volumes piled up on the floor: Toni MorrisonZadie Smith, Maya Angelou, ... Houseplants, comfortable furniture decorated with African prints, books, carpets, rugs, fill the replicas of the artist's childhood interiors. In her interview for Artnet Thomas sheds some light on her "tableaux". She describes how she recreates familiar spaces from her memories: "we construct our spaces in various ways to express ourselves". The domestic installations provide a way to connect with the artist and her history.

The next works are hung along the walls leading to the back of the gallery. The mirror-based series are portraits inspired by the book and movie The Color Purple, and strong characters like Diahann Carroll or Naomi Sims. Most of Thomas's creations start with photographs  undergoing several processes, this time the last one involves silkscreening onto a mirror. The dreamy subjects appear remote and subdued, without a smile or eye contact, filled with the blues.
This is in contrast with Do I Look Like a Lady? a raucous video installation projected on multiple screens lining up two walls around a second living room. The You-tube clips of famous singers or comedians are selected according to their relevance to the plight of black females. The quarter of an hour projection is best viewed sitting on one of the comfortable armchairs.

In the next room, the smaller space allows the display of four works, two "picassian" paintings- collages  facing each other and two black and white Polaroid portraits of queer models (according to the wall text) engaging the camera with a proud stare, Courbet #2 and Courbet #4. The show ends with one of Thomas's black and white film shown in a dark backroom. Twenty minutes long,  je t'aime, 2014, shows close-ups of the artist and her partner on two adjacent screens. The camera is moving slowly over bare skins and it feels like intruding when confronted with the gaze of the two lovers enjoying their intimacy. In the background the sound of water dripping gives a measure of time.

The 49-year-old artist has been recognized by the art world for more than a decade and pundits have discussedanalyzeddissected her work already. Inspired by a long list of artists, she has absorbed the essence of their practice to grow her own, characterized by multiple references to art history in her signature portraits of black women made in various media, from photography to collages, paintings, videos and movies. Ultimately her quest is powered by her own history starting with her childhood's memories, growing up as a black queer woman. Her art can be considered provocative and inciting voyeurism, but skin, breasts and pubic hair aside, her portraits are about the inner strength of her subjects conveyed through their intense gaze. The relatively modest show with about a dozen well selected works enriched by informative wall texts allows to sample Thomas's practice, interact with her homey interiors and follow the artist in her quest for new canons of beauty.





photographs by the author:

"Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires", 2010
"Sister: Shug Avery Breakfast", 2016
"Portrait of Aaliyah", 2017