Gallery  June 7, 2024  Jordan Riefe

Mickalene Thomas is “All About Love” in Her New Exhibition

Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of The Broad

Installation view of Mickalene Thomas: All About Love at The Broad, Los Angeles, May 25–September 29, 2024. 

In the preface to her groundbreaking book, All About Love, bell hooks writes, "Redeemed and restored, love returns us to the promise of everlasting life. When we love we can let our hearts speak.” 

Artist Mickalene Thomas’ heart does a whole lot of speaking in her new survey, “All About Love.” Held at Los Angeles’ The Broad through September 29th, the exhibition will later travel to Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, the Hayward Gallery in London, and finally to Les Abattoirs in Toulouse. 

“This ethic of intimacy has been a part of Mickalene’s practice of making art for the last twenty years,” noted curator Ed Schad in the show’s opening address. Accompanying him was museum director Joanne Heyler who stated, “She highlights the intersection and complexities of the black and female identity, making space for those complexities within the context of the western canon that has excluded and marginalized women, queer identity and the black experience.”

Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of The Broad.

Installation view of Mickalene Thomas: All About Love at The Broad, Los Angeles, May 25–September 29, 2024.

A survey of over 90 works representing the people and places Thomas loves most, the new show begins at 604 Mountain Gardens Street, Camden, New Jersey, where the artist grew up. The address’ front stoop and some of its rooms have been dutifully recreated at The Broad, welcoming viewers into the artist’s world.

There are images from 2006-2007 of Thomas in a zebra skin leotard wrestling with a friend, her features and hair outlined in rhinestones, a staple of her practice emphasizing artifice and its role in determining beauty

Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of The Broad.

Installation view of Mickalene Thomas: All About Love at The Broad, Los Angeles, May 25–September 29, 2024.

“Beauty is perseverance and resilience,” the artist tells Art & Object. “Beauty is defined by how people feel and see themselves. And I think the resilience of it is Black women always having to be in positions of being told that they're not. But we know that we are, right? So, the resilience is us presenting ourselves because we confidently know that we are grounded and beautiful and strong and vulnerable."

She continues, “But culturally, society wants to box us into the other. That has shifted greatly with magazines and media and entertainment, but there's still this sort of notion of ideal beauty that presides in whiteness. Perseverance is us believing in ourselves.”

Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of The Broad.

Installation view of Mickalene Thomas: All About Love at The Broad, Los Angeles, May 25–September 29, 2024.

Thomas’ career began when she was in her early twenties as a student at Portland State University in Oregon, studying Pre-Law and Theater Arts. In 1994, when a friend took her to the Portland Art Museum, she discovered the works of Carrie Mae Weems through her “Kitchen Table Series”— photos of a woman (Weems) seated at the kitchen table and engaged in the quotidian chores and experiences of domestic life. 

According to Weems, such work “usurps the power of all of those strategies that have heretofore hindered us, and gives us a sort of strength and a power to move forward under our own conditions.”

“I don't think I would be the artist I am today,” Thomas says of that first encounter with Weems’ work. 

© Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas, This is Where I Came In, 2006. Rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, 72 x 60 in.

“I was just pushed onto a path through the vehicle of her work, and uplifted and pushed out and transformed to flower and blossom. That is the testament and power of images. And that's why it's important for narratives and stories, and for us to see ourselves and art and work on these platforms. You never know whose life you might change. For me, that is someone who has embodied the fullness and greatness of themselves and spiritually understands the shoes that they're walking in, the shoulders that they're standing on, and pushing through that.”

Switching her focus to art, Thomas received her BFA from Pratt Institute in 2000 and her MFA from Yale School of Art in 2002. With encouragement from Kehinde Wiley, she then applied for and was accepted by a residency program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. 

In bell hooks’ 1981 book, Ain’t I Woman, she writes, “Devaluation of black womanhood after slavery ended was a conscious, deliberate effort on the part of whites to sabotage mounting black female self-confidence and self-respect.”

Thomas’ artwork in this period addresses this sentiment head on, creating photo portraits of her friends, lovers and models, including her mother, Sandra “Mama” Bush, a former model. Often the photos are recycled as templates for later paintings or collages using cutouts and rhinestones.

© Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas, Afro Goddess Looking Forward, 2015. Rhinestones, acrylic, and oil on wood panel, 60 x 96 x 2 in.

From 2013 onward, collage became a prominent component of her work. Her Jet Series, using “Jet” magazine’s nude calendar, directly addresses issues of Black beauty. By altering images with paint, pixelation, and rhinestones, she comments on cosmetic enhancement while deconstructing the male gaze. 

Monet, Duchamp, Rousseau, Rauschenberg, and other modern artists inform her work during this period, notably her 2010 commission for MoMA PS1, “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires,” a photo reproduction of Manet’s scandalous 1862-63 work that features three black women, fully clothed, directly addressing the viewer. 

The piece was later turned into a collage, followed by another iteration done after Picasso whose “Guernica” impacts her “Resist” series from 2017 to 2023. Featuring news photos of the Black Lives Matter movement and other protests, these collages offer trenchant commentary on the state of race relations. 

Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of The Broad.

Installation view of Mickalene Thomas: All About Love at The Broad, Los Angeles, May 25–September 29, 2024. 

“We continue to prosper even with the scars and lynching and destruction, even with today's brutality. And that's why there's the Resist paintings,” she explains. “Even with being bitten by dogs or police deciding that they're going to take your life, we still persevere.”

While she acknowledges a change in attitudes during her lifetime, she describes it as incremental.

“There's a lack of understanding of our humanity. If you can see that the other person is just like you, then why would you want to do harm to that person? I think about White women not supporting Black women in the March when it was specifically about young Black kids being killed on the streets by police. That was a wakeup call for women to come together to march, especially if you're a mother, right? If you're a mother, why would you want another mother to lose their child in that way?”

© Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas, May 1975 Redux, 2022, Rhinestones and acrylic paint on canvas, mounted on wood panel with stained red mahogany frame, 74 x 62 in.

The solution is for the Black artistic community to form institutions and markets independent of the White majority. In the years since the Black Lives Matter protests, many African-American artists have seen their auction prices leap. 

But such good fortune remains in the hands of the establishment and can be reversed at any time without explanation. While Thomas cultivates a coterie of Black collectors, the rules won’t change while major institutions and markets remain controlled by White people.

“There's a moment, but that moment will shift,” she notes. “Until the corporations and the rules are really sort of geared by some meaty, multi-media of Black people, until we can have more magazines that are at the forefront, a ‘Jet’ that's like a ‘Vogue’ and run by Black people, until those things are possible, then it will always be controlled by other people.”

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Mickalene Thomas: All About Love
Start Date:
May 25, 2024
End Date:
September 29, 2024
Venue:
The Broad
About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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