Mickalene Thomas is primarily known for her large-scale, rhinestone-encrusted paintings that riff on art history and black culture, showcasing powerful female bodies. An exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery offers a revealing look into her lesser-known photographic practice. And it feels personal.
There it is. The ’70s-styled, wood-paneled, textile-embellished living room seen in so many photographs and paintings by Mickalene Thomas. It greets you right away when you walk into the Henry Art Gallery’s exhibition.
But, then again, it’s not really a living room. It’s Thomas’ re-creation of the throwback domestic setting she fabricates in her studio to make photographs that are often jumping-off points for paintings.
The setting is important. Not only is it based on a living room from Thomas’ childhood, it provides an intimate, comfortable, but deliberately artificial stage for the black women who strike self-possessed, often sensual poses for the artist.
Thomas is primarily known for her large-scale, rhinestone-encrusted paintings that riff on art history and black culture, showcasing powerful female bodies. This exhibition offers a revealing look into her lesser-known photographic practice.
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And it feels personal.
Centered in the living-room tableau, a vintage TV set screens a short film, a “portrait” of the artist’s mom, Sandra Bush (or Mama Bush, as she was often called), created by Thomas shortly before her mother’s death. We hear Thomas asking Mama Bush frank questions about her mother’s past, their past and their work together. A former model, Bush frequently posed for Thomas and can be seen in several photographs in the exhibition, in Afro wigs and patterned ensembles, recalling the “black is beautiful” movement of the 1960s and ’70s, the socio-politically charged aesthetic frequently conjured up by Thomas.
During Thomas’ grad-school days at Yale in the early 2000s, a professor urged her to photograph a personal subject, one that might touch on her own vulnerabilities. She chose her mother. Later, she would recount, “The moment I started photographing my mother was the moment my work completely changed.”
Thomas branched out to collaborate with romantic partners, friends and trans women, always capturing something both theatrical and intensely real. These women who look out at us from the saturated images are muses, yes, but they are not merely objects of desire or catalysts for inspiration.
The title of the show, “MUSE,” is like so much of Thomas’ work — an adroit encapsulation of complex associations. It feels like Thomas is musing over not just her artistic process, but who and what is important to her.
Part of the exhibition focuses on Thomas’ photographs and photographic collages, but there are also galleries that almost seamlessly mix Thomas’ images with work by other photographers. Curated by Thomas, this part of the exhibition is titled “tête-à-tête” — a term suggesting a private conversation between two people.
Here, we can get up close and personal with established greats such as Renée Cox, Lyle Ashton Harris and Carrie Mae Weems and some luminaries — Zachary Fabri, Nicole Miller and Zanele Muholi — whose work is being increasingly recognized.
The visual and thematic exchanges between their work and Thomas’ are intuitive and self-evident. Shared motifs include foregrounded portraits, people who take on personas or pose with mementos, formally dramatic compositions and intimate, domestic moments. And, of course, a decisive, varied focus on black figures and identities.
The back-and-forth between the images — and between the viewer and image — extends beyond Thomas’ work while reflecting back on it as well.
I loved seeing some of her quasi-self-portraits in this context. In “Negress with Green Nails” from 2005, Thomas is almost unrecognizable in her neon outfit, abundant accessories and bright makeup, but she feels real and recognizable as a certain type of self-assured, self-adorned woman. In fact, this image was created shortly after grad school and Thomas’ adoption of an alter ego, Quanikah (her childhood nickname), as part of a performance art history class.
Seen among the images by other artists, these photographs speak volumes about broader cultural modes of representation and self-representation. In a statement about her curatorial project, Thomas writes, “These vastly different artists share the common aim of probing notions of self-awareness that complicate both contemporary and canonical Western stereotypes of blackness.”
In other words, to paraphrase the old feminist declaration, the personal image is political.
“MUSE: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête,” 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, until 9 p.m. Thursday, through Sept. 30; Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 15th Ave. N.E. and N.E. 41st St., Seattle; $10 general public, $6 seniors, free for members, UW faculty/staff, students and children; 206-543-2280, henryart.org.