Time is running out to see the work of one of America’s most fascinating and prolific contemporary female artists, Mickalene Thomas at the Dayton Art Institute.
Her artistry ranges from portraits and large-scale, multi-textured paintings to film, video and domestic interior scenes which she labels tableaux. Her nostalgic settings of urban living rooms stand alone as artwork and are often used as settings for her sitters.
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The work is bold, dramatic and often “glitzy.”
Thomas has made a name for herself by challenging traditional views of beauty and introducing her own, focusing on the black and lesbian women in her own life who have inspired her.
“I would love if they (visitors) would take away and see the visibility of these women and see a little of themselves in my work,” Thomas told me at the opening of her exhibit at The Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, which recently ended.
“Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs,” and its companion exhibition, “tête-à-tête,” are on view at the Dayton museum through Jan. 13. This is the only Midwest venue for the exhibit organized by Aperture Foundation, New York, and presented in conjunction with Cincinnati’s FotoFocus Biennial.
The DAI’s Katherine Ryckman Siegwarth served as in-house curator. “We are hoping this show will bring in new audiences including young adults, and show them that museums display current themes relevant today,” she says.
The DAI’s companion exhibit, “tête-à-tête,” was curated by Thomas herself. “It features artists I’ve mentored and who have inspired me,” says Thomas. The two shows are blended in the DAI galleries; the idea is that works are “in conversation” with one another.
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“Mickalene explores and expresses her creativity in lots of different ways and lately it’s been interesting to see how much attention has been paid to her photography,” says Melissa Starker, public relations manager for the Wex. “She photographed Cardi B for a gorgeous cover and fashion spread in “W” and she also just photographed Carrie Mae Weems, one of her mentors, for this week’s Greats issue of the New York Times magazine. You’ll see an image by Weems in Dayton’s “tête-à-tête” exhibit.
Meet Mama Bush
By the time you’ve visited a while with Thomas and her art, you’ll feel you’ve been introduced to the most important people in her life. She calls them her muses. First and foremost is her mother, Sandra, whom Thomas first began photographing when she was a student at the Yale University School of Art.
Take time to view “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” a touching 23-minute video in which Thomas interviews her mother, attempting to reconcile their complicated relationship. The intimate video is shown on a 1970’s television set that’s part of a tableaux that incorporates paintings and patchwork-covered furniture, all created by Thomas.
“Her mom is a beautiful black woman who sits confidently staring at us,” says Siegwarth, standing in front of a Mama Bush portrait. “This is a great example of what is lacking in art history and in most of our museums … and even our mass media. This woman has a sense of her own autonomy and we don’t see that depicted very often.”
Thomas doesn’t use professional models for her work. The muses featured in paintings and photos are friends and lovers; her goal is to allow them to be themselves in her portraits through a collaborative process. Each of the Wexner Center’s four galleries is devoted to one of Thomas’s significant and sustained muses: her late mother, Sandra; her former lover, Maya; her current partner, Racquel; and Thomas herself. You’ll recognize these same muses in the Dayton portraits.
“One of the things I look for in a subject is a unique and sometimes unexpected interpretation of what it means to be a woman,” Thomas says. “All of them have an inimitable charisma, but know their bodies and see themselves through the camera very differently. Most of my muses are very intimate figures in my life so they have become a reflection of who I am, who I want to be, and the kind of figures I am grateful to observe in the world, ones who deserve to be seen and represented.”
Thomas says around the time she started taking photographs in the early 2000s, stereotypes of young, black, female bodies were already pervasive. “Women like Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim, and Foxy Brown were at the forefront of pop culture and still limited to depicting themselves as objects of desire,” she says. ” I found this presentation of black women to be deeply in conflict with my understanding of myself and most black women I knew. It was crucial for me to flip these ideas by making images of women who were not, for example, a ‘Foxy Brown,’ but also weren’t in line with the marginalizing narrative of female subjects in Western art history.“
It’s obvious that Thomas is a student of art history. She often references the past in her work. Her bows to the past range from 1970s black-is-beautiful imagery to 19th-century French painting and 20th-century studio portraiture. Thomas studied at the Pratt Institute and at Yale and did residencies in France, including at Monet’s Giverny. “There is a deep intelligence in Thomas’ work and her prowess as an arbiter of art-historical traditions and practices,” says Goodson. “She consistently and lucidly folds the history of painting, replete with all its complications, into her own ideas. She reclaims — and in so doing redefines — ideas of beauty canonized in Western art history while demanding her own space, on her own terms.”
WANT TO GO?
What: “Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs” and “tête-à-tête”
When: Through Jan. 13. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday, with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Thursdays.
Where: Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park Drive, Dayton
Admission: $14 adults; $11 seniors (60+), students (18+ w/ID), active military and groups (10 or more); $6 youth (ages 7–17); and free for members and children ages 6 and under. Equitas Health will sponsor a special Community Day on Saturday, Oct. 27, with free admission to the special exhibition and the collection galleries.