June is Gay Pride Month. President Clinton declared June “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month” in 1999 and 2000. President Obama declared June “LGBT Pride Month” during his term in office from 2009 until 2016. President Biden revived the celebration, and he declared June “LGBTQ+ Pride Month” in 2021. Several of the recognized “old masters,” including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, were gay, as are some well-known contemporary artists. In her work, Mickalene Thomas, a gay African-American woman artist, celebrates and challenges the classical canons of style and creates a new contemporary canon depicting African-American women.
Born in 1971 in Camden, New Jersey, Mickalene Thomas grew up in Hillside and East Orange, New Jersey. She and her brother were mostly raised by their mother, Sandra “Mama Bush,” a striking 6’1’’ tall model active in the 1970’s. Mama Bush enrolled Mickalene and her brother in after-school programs at the Newark Museum and the Henry Street Settlement. Thomas moved to Portland, Oregon, to study pre-law and theater. Her friends were musicians and artists, and her interests changed. When a friend took her to the Portland Art Museum in 1994 to see the work of Carrie Mae Weems, Thomas was overwhelmed: “It was probably the first time I ever saw myself in art. Those photographs really hit the core. I felt, that’s what you can do with art? Wow. One day after I went to see the show on my own, I didn’t even think about it, I just walked to the art-supply store.” She completed a BFA in 2000 at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and an MFA in painting at Yale in 2002.
Thomas is a multimedia artist specializing in photography and mixed media painting. An excellent example of her art is “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois Femmes Noires” (2010) (48’’ x 60’’) (photograph) in the Baltimore Museum of Art. This piece is the first stage in her process. Her chosen subject was and continues to be African-American women wearing bright and eclectic patterned clothing that she designs. In this instance, the photograph was for a larger work commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York for its restaurant. Thomas used the sculpture garden on the roof of MoMA for the setting. The women are placed in front of one of Matisse’s “Backs,” a series of four female nude bronze relief sculptures. Her choice of these sculptures was a tribute to Matisse, one of her several influences. Thomas’s photographs are considered by the art world as separate but equal to her paintings as works of art.
Thomas frequently selects famous works of the “masters” and updates them. For the large MoMA restaurant window, Thomas selected Manet’s famous and, at the time, scandalous painting “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe” (1865). The subject seems tame today, but in 1865, the idea of a nude woman seated with clothed men casually picnicking in a public park in Paris was shocking. The public and the critics responded negatively. The woman boldly and unashamedly gazes at the viewer, her straw hat and blue dress scattered on the ground at the left, along with the empty bottles, rolls, and fruit. Another woman in the background appears to be about to undress.
Thomas’s completed commission, “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires” (2010) (10 feet tall by 24 feet wide) (mixed media collage and painting), was displayed in the 53rd Street window of the MoMA restaurant The Modern. Thomas has changed the dynamic of the composition to include only three African-American woman. Fully dressed, they wear elaborate make-up and large Afro’s. All three look confidently at the viewer, inviting the viewer’s gaze. Art historians long have commented on the concept of “the gaze,” referring to white males looking at women in paintings, male artists looking at their models, and male audiences looking at paintings of women in museums. Thomas has given African-American women a major presence in all of her art, and she has created a new legacy for “the gaze.” The painting has traveled to several locations across North America including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Seattle Art Museum. Catherina Manchanda, curator of the Seattle Art Museum commented, “These women are so grounded and perfectly comfortable in their own space… While we might be looking at them, they are also sizing us up.”
To create the forest background, Thomas uses collaged wood panels, painted a blue sky, painted stylized trees, and placed Matisse’s bronze sculpture on a yellow wall between two of the women. The picnic still-life is created from several floral fabrics juxtaposed with well-placed but random flat color pieces. The influence of her artist muses, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Faith Ringgold, to mention a few, can be seen in her tendency to include flat panels of color and interspersed lines that do not outline images, but enliven the work.
Essential to Thomas’s work is her lavish embellishment with rhinestones and sequins. When she was working on her master’s degree at Yale, Thomas commented, “I always felt my hand needed more. It wasn’t physical enough form. Visually, I felt the paint needed more texture, and I couldn’t figure out how to do that with oils. So, I went back to materials I had fun with.” Remembering the pointillism of Seurat and Australian aboriginal dot painting, she tried it out: “It just felt so good and right. And [these portraits] were crazy. And they were ugly and they were beautiful.” The “Dejeuner” was the largest work that Thomas had done, and it gave her the opportunity to spread her wings. She has never looked back: ”I’d embarked on this new endeavor of understanding the presence of this black body on that scale…It was always a political statement: people need to come in contact with this body, be face to face with it. It’s the ultimate sense of validation and the claiming of space.”
Thomas’s “Three Graces: Les trois Femmes Noires” (2011) is based on the poses of Botticelli’s three graces in “Primavera” (1477-82) (80’’ x 124’’). Although Botticelli’s three graces are clothed in sheer garments that hide nothing, he was soon to paint “The Birth of Venus” (1485-1486), that introduces the nude female to the canon of artistic images. Thomas’s works often includes African-American nude females, following such notable masters as Titian, Rubens, and Ingres.
““Three Graces: Les trois Femmes Noires” (2011) (9 feet tall x 12 feet wide) (North Carolina Museum of Art) illustrates all of the elements of Thomas’s unique style. The three graces are buffed, fluffed, and dressed to the nines. Proud, strong, and totally comfortable, they are ready to party and do not care who sees them. The dresses and hair, heavily decorated with rhinestones and sequins, add to their joyful mood. The size of the figures and the viewer are on par, and the women take over the space.
Thomas’s unusual fabric choices are also a significant part of her work. She remembers her grandmother using second-hand clothes to patch worn furniture. Her choice of fabrics come from old house dresses she finds in thrift stores: “I love house dresses — the pattern, the history, knowing that a particular woman wore this, like your grandma.” She believes the juxtaposition of the various fabrics is an “amalgamation of all of the different things we are as Americans.”
Thomas has made numerous portraits of famous African-American women, including Oprah Winfrey, Eartha Kitt, Whitney Houston, and Condoleezza Rice. Thomas’s silkscreen of “Michele O” (2008) (25’’ x 19.5’’), without the usual embellishments, was the first individual portrait of the First Lady. More recently, she had a solo exhibition Mentors, Muses and Celebrities (2017) at the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis. The Gordon Levy Gallery opened in 2021 Thomas exhibitions in its four locations: New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong.
“Could a man have made these images? No, not my images.” (Mickalene Thomas)
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.