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It's her exhibition, and she's sharing
The artist Mickalene Thomas in front of an elaborate lobby installation for her show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Nov. 4, 2019. Andrew Mangum/The New York Times.

by Ted Loos

BALTIMORE (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Few artists have had more museum exposure in the past couple of years than Mickalene Thomas, a prolific maker in several media. In 2018 alone, her name was in the title of at least four different shows, and since then her work has been included in many other exhibitions across the country.

But it wasn’t always thus.

The New York-based Thomas, now 48, rocketed to art-world fame in 2012 with a show at the now-named Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Brooklyn Museum, “Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe.” Her rhinestone-encrusted, collage-style paintings of black women in domestic spaces were praised, noticed, talked about — but the exhibition, for all its attention, didn’t travel after Brooklyn.

Despite the efforts of the curators, “No one took that show,” Thomas recalled, during a daylong tour of this city, which included visits to a gallery and a friend’s art studio. First, though, she settled in to chat at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where her latest exhibition, “Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure,” opening Nov. 24, will remain on view until May 2021.

“There was a huge stall,” she said. “I heard from museums, ‘Our audiences aren’t ready for this work.’” A moment later, she added, “You know, black women, when you go down the list, we’re the last, right?”

Museums finally seem to be ready. “Now, they’re knocking,” she said, allowing a smile to cross her face. In addition to Baltimore, she has an installation at the Bass in Miami Beach, debuting Dec. 1; and a show open now at the Contemporary Art Center New Orleans.

But Thomas is doing something unusual with her newfound leverage: She is pointedly and purposefully sharing the spotlight with others.

For “A Moment’s Pleasure,” Thomas is transforming much of the museum’s east lobby and entrance into residential-feeling spaces with murals (one depicts a sofa), faux-wood paneling and even patterned linoleum floors. The installation has four of her photographs, including “Negress with Green Shirt” (2005). The facade of the entrance will be covered a 65-foot-wide vinyl mural depicting three typical Baltimore row houses.

But the show also comprises works by other people — eight Baltimore-affiliated, African American artists, many of whom she has known for years, others she’s meeting only now. They are all installed in a cozy setting she designed, complete with furniture and a bar. She chose the works and arranged the room.

These artists have differing levels of exposure in the art world. Derrick Adams — a Baltimore native whom Thomas met when they both attended Pratt Institute — had a solo show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York; others have never had a work in a major museum.

Devin N. Morris is in the latter category. The 33-year-old Baltimore native has five works in the show, including “Soft Enough to Rest Your Back” (2018), an interior scene on paper. “This is huge for me,” Morris said. “Everybody wants to be involved with the BMA.”

Though Thomas hails from New Jersey, she has Baltimore roots on her mother’s side and many other ties to the city. While she was standing in front of the museum the other day, someone in a passing car yelled out her name. Thomas wheeled around and shouted back, “Hey, baby!” The driver was someone she knew through a local art school.

When the opportunity for a show came up in her discussions with Christopher Bedford, the Baltimore museum’s director, she made an effort to localize the show.

“I wanted there to be a thread of connection” to the city, Thomas said. The inclusion of other artists, she added, could be seen as an extension of her interest in “social practice,” the increasingly influential idea that the art world can create positive change that goes beyond aesthetics.

But her motivation to curate work came down to the feeling that she now has some capital to spend.

“When you are confident in what you’re doing, you can extend yourself,” she said. “You can suggest, ‘How about this artist, too?’ It doesn’t diminish you to do that.”

Thomas added, “I think a lot of people are stingy. A lot of artists — mostly male artists, I think — hold on to their access, hold on to their knowledge and hold on to their resources.”

And she knows personally the benefits of a fellow artist’s recommendation. A decade and a half ago, as the exhibition “Greater New York 2005” was being jointly planned by what was then the PS 1 Contemporary Art Center and the Museum of Modern Art, Adams did just that for Thomas.

“That’s how I got into the show,” she said. “Derrick went, ‘You know who’s not on your list? Mickalene.’” The relationship between Thomas and MoMA PS1 certainly has flourished: Now she is a trustee of the institution.

Helping out a friend is not unusual in Baltimore’s tight-knit arts community. “This show is an acknowledgment of what’s happening in this city,” said Zoë Charlton, one of the artists in the exhibition. “It’s about the overlapping connections.”

The exhibition also features Theresa Chromati, Alex Dukes, Dominiqua S. Eldridge, Clifford Owens and D’Metrius John Rice.

“A Moment’s Pleasure” is the inaugural Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker Biennial Commission, from an endowed fund given by the Baltimore-based collectors, and it fits squarely into Bedford’s vision for the museum.

Since becoming director in 2016, Bedford has aggressively worked to diversify the institution. The museum recently announced that all purchases for its permanent collection in 2020 will be from women artists. Bedford noted that one-fourth of the board of trustees are people of color, including the acclaimed Baltimore-based painter Amy Sherald and the chief curator, Asma Naeem. He pointedly compared his work to the efforts of other, similar institutions.

“In a black-majority city, it’s not adequate to put a Norman Lewis painting next to a Mark Rothko and call it done,” Bedford said, referring to the African American painter, re-appreciated of late, and the white Color Field artist. “The gesture is too slight and indiscernible. What distinguishes the BMA is fast-paced, radical change, with a view toward what I would call reparations.”

He added that Thomas’ pieces, with their references to domestic spaces, work in the context of the museum’s history. Its neoclassical building, fronted by Ionic columns and opened in 1929, is by the noted architect John Russell Pope, who also designed the National Gallery of Art.

“I went back to the museum’s founding documents, and Pope said he wanted this to be Baltimore’s front porch,” Bedford said. “I thought, ‘How do we re-create that character?’ Mickalene is giving us a living room in the lobby.”

When it came to choosing artists to feature, Thomas went with her gut. “I love work where I say, ‘Wow, I wish I had done that. They’re onto something,’” she said. “When you see that, you have to support it.”

She added, “It doesn’t have to look exactly like mine.” Even so, the other works do have a similarity to Thomas’ — lots of color, a balance of the figurative and the abstract and a tilt toward collagelike compositions.

“There are definitely some intersections with materiality and domesticity, and color and pattern,” she said. “And we use the black body as an image.”

Chromati, represented in the show by two collages made of acrylic, glitter and vinyl, received the ultimate compliment from Thomas, who bought one of the artist’s works for her daughter’s room.

The necessity of boosting the fortunes of other African American artists is based on Thomas’ experiences after the Brooklyn Museum show.

“I’m very conscious of being a queer black woman in America,” she said. “In 2012, that was less a part of the conversation — even in the Obama era.”

She added, “I’m very aware of how fickle the art world is. Right now, I check some boxes for people who are looking to fill a void.”

And Thomas was careful to note that the eight artists at the Baltimore museum “are doing it for themselves anyway, persevering and carving spaces out on their own,” she said. “This is just an extra nudge.”

One of her strongest ties is to Charlton, 46, whose local studio Thomas visited after checking on the progress of “A Moment’s Pleasure.” She’s known the artist for about 15 years; Charlton has shown work at the Baltimore museum previously and has had solo exhibitions across the country, including at the Union for Contemporary Art in Omaha.

One of her works in the Baltimore show, a figural work on vellum called “Cousins: Rug Burn,” was still in the studio when Thomas arrived. Standing there too was a sculpture that inspired a series of drawings along the wall: It was a fertility figure in wood made by the Bangwa people of Cameroon. Like Charlton, it is 60 inches tall.

“When I found her in an antiques store,” she said, “I looked at her and said, ‘You are me!’ The same forehead, the same complexion, and we’re the same height!’ I was like yes!” Charlton nicknamed it Sib, for sibling.

She added, “I never get to look at people eye to eye. Height is physical and arbitrary, and there are already so many things I have to negotiate with race, gender and sexuality.”

Looking at the figure, Thomas was brimming with ideas. “Do you think you would ever cast her?” she asked.

Charlton opened her eyes wide. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you just said that,” she said. “I’m getting chills.” In fact, she was already working on making a mold of the figure, to be cast in brightly colored plastic for a future show. Her mind was racing, as she added, “Wouldn’t this be dope in bronze?”

Thomas was ready to step in and lend her network.

“I know people who can do it in bronze for you,” Thomas said, nodding knowingly. “We should talk.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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