Mickalene Thomas takes Los Angeles

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Mickalene Thomas takes Los Angeles
Mickalene Thomas, Din avec la main dans le miroir et jupe rouge, 2023. Rhinestones, acrylic and glitter on canvas mounted on wood panel. 90 x 110 in (228.6 x 279.4 cm). © Mickalene Thomas.

by Robin Pogrebin

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Mickalene Thomas has been getting into neon. But then, the artist is constantly exploring new materials and methods, which is why her practice includes painting, collage, sculpture, printmaking, photography and video.

Now the scope of her work will be captured by a sweeping exhibition in Los Angeles at the Broad, “Mickalene Thomas: All About Love,” which opens May 25.

Well before the current market craze over Black figuration, Thomas was exploring the Black female figure. “It’s difficult to understand from where we are now how radical her work was when I first showed it,” said Los Angeles gallerist Susanne Vielmetter, who gave Thomas one of her first solo shows in 2007. “I cannot think of a single artist who at that time was making portraiture of female Black figures from a perspective of female desire.”

The museum’s show features more than 80 works made over the last 20 years and bills itself as the artist’s “first major international tour.” But Thomas did not want to call it a retrospective or a survey.

“It seems so finite, so definite — closed and fixed,” she said over a shrimp Caesar salad at the Edition hotel. “I like things open-ended. My career is still young.

“There is still a lot I have to learn and then stuff that I have to unlearn because I created a system that I need to break,” Thomas continued. “There is so much more to discover about myself as an artist. And a lot more bad work I have to make.”

The Broad organized the exhibition with the Hayward Gallery in London, in partnership with the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. “Mickalene’s driving force is that she starts where she grew up — in Camden, New Jersey, with her mother, with her lovers and with her friends,” said Ed Schad, a curator at the Broad. “So I’ve worked with Mickalene to foreground those local experiences.”

Works will include “Lounging, Standing, Looking” (2003), a photographic triptych that depicts the artist’s mother; “Portrait of Maya No. 10” (2017), an acrylic and rhinestone work from the Broad collection; and “Angelitos Negros” (2016), a video collage that pays tribute to Eartha Kitt.

“Her work has gotten more expansive,” said Joy Simmons, a longtime Los Angeles collector who lent her Thomas piece, “Look at What You’ve Become” (2005) to the show. Simmons said she immediately responded to the piece’s familiar iconography — wood-paneled basements and afghans.

“My aunts always made those blankets,” Simmons said, adding that she loved “the exuberance of it.”

Jen Rubio, a collector and the co-founder and CEO of the Away luggage company, will soon reluctantly part ways with Thomas’ erotic “La Leçon d’amour” (2008), which she has donated to a major undisclosed museum. “She was one of the first artists that really excited me,” she said of Thomas. “It was a combination of her unconventional materials but also how unapologetic her work is.”

A number of major institutions have Thomas’ work, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the National Portrait Gallery. “She was a slow and steady build — she was never a one-hit wonder,” said Isolde Brielmaier, the deputy director of the New Museum in New York. “She’s remained true to making Black women visible — amplifying their presence and their voices.”

Ian Alteveer, chair of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, said he had long been struck by the versatility and vibrancy of Thomas’ practice, from her landscapes, collage and installation work to her 2008 portrait of Michelle Obama, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

“She’s portrayed the female figure as an odalisque — these glamorous women who are larger than life, this luscious bright color,” he said. “Those are all the hallmarks of an artist who’s here to stay, someone who responds to the culture but also emblematizes it.”

Thomas said her use of color had been deliberate and generative. “I like it to be very provocative and bold,” she said. “For me, color really sets the tone for how one feels, the energy. It can be celebratory or it can be sad.”

Although rhinestones have become Thomas’ signature, she said they also recently led her to neon, which had always intrigued her in the work of artists such as Tracey Emin.

She realized that the lines in her collage “Jet” paintings — based on Jet magazine’s 1970s-era “Beauties of the Month” — could become neon. “The gestural movement of it reminded me of neon images, like at clubs,” she said. “One day I was in my studio thinking about it, and I kept walking by it and thought, ‘There’s something with this.’”

Thomas has also been experimenting with text, having been inspired by the written affirmations that her mother painted on small canvas boards — “I was born to do great things” — and placed around the house before she died in 2012.

“She would have one on her mirror in the bedroom or in the bathroom or in the living room,” Thomas recalled. “She would put her little handwritten quotes on them and they were really beautiful.”

“This is another way of me thinking about a portrait of my mother,” she said. “She’s definitely a guiding light.”

Born in 1971 in Camden, Thomas earned her Master of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Art in 2002 and a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2003.

Group gallery shows led to important solo shows at galleries like Vielmetter’s, Lehmann Maupin and Nathalie Obadia. Thomas’ first solo museum exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2012, “Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe,” cemented the artist’s reputation.

“It was the vision of a Black lesbian artist and that wasn’t done at that time,” Vielmetter said. “Even progressive artists did not like it — they thought it was brash. I felt like this was a voice that was very crucial; nobody said the things that she said. I also strongly felt nobody had the right to tell her how to deliver her message. It took a long time for the institutions and the curators to take notice.”

Despite intense demand for her work among collectors and achieving an auction high of $1.8 million in 2021, Thomas is not currently represented by any New York gallery for her paintings (Yancey Richardson sells her photographs). “I’m a little complicated,” she said. “I’ve been told that I’m a little too independent.”

That independence is evident when Thomas talks about the gallery system, and how she believes that artists should have more agency and greater returns. “It’s more about understanding it as a partnership, not a representation,” she said. “I’m interested in my legacy, I’m interested in my estate, and I’m interested in working with a gallery that really wants to take on and understand my practice and have a great passion for me as an artist. And I want to see where that is going to be in 20 years.

“Artists are at the top of the pyramid,” she continued, “and we need to start acting like it.” Similarly, Thomas said artists should get a direct financial benefit from auction sales. “The issue is not necessarily whether there’s a secondary market,” she said. “The issue is that the artist doesn’t get residuals.”

Thomas has made a point of supporting other artists and bringing younger ones up behind her. “Within our community, she is considered the connector,” said a good friend of hers, artist Derrick Adams.

Thomas said she was excited about having her work at the Broad — the exhibition will take up the whole first floor — in juxtaposition with artists including Julie Mehretu, Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann.

And Thomas said it was important to have the show integrate conversations with local artists. In collaboration with Thomas, the museum has developed programming connected to the show, such as a summer concert series and gallery programs centering women and Black and queer communities.

“There’s a different community in Los Angeles,” she said. “So I’m very mindful of being a New York artist ... who’s having a sort of moment here.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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