Mickalene Thomas Makes Space For Love at The Broad

The art critic Jerry Saltz recently described Mickalene Thomas’s work as “a brick thrown through the window of art history.” Perhaps this was in reference to the way her nude portraits subvert the traditional male gaze or how her portrayal of Black queer female bodies challenges ingrained hierarchies. Or maybe it’s because of her unconventional use of craft supplies like rhinestones, felt, and glitter or because her mixed media paintings refuse formal categorization. While there’s no doubt that Thomas’s work is both irreverent and disruptive, that’s only half the story. As Thomas told W, “Sometimes things have to be broken in order to be made whole.”

Thomas reimagines our broken world restored by love, color, and sequence in her newly opened survey exhibition at The Broad in Los Angeles, which includes over 90 works made over the last 20 years. With stops in London, Philadelphia, and Toulouse, France, the exhibit also marks the first major international tour of the artist’s work. Its title, All About Love, borrows from feminist author bell hooks’s seminal text of the same name and emphasizes the redemptive facets of Thomas’s practice. From broken down barriers and shattered expectations, she reconstitutes a new reality where, in hooks’s words, “love’s sacred presence can be felt everywhere.”

The revolution begins at home, which for Thomas is Camden, N.J. “My home is your home,” she said as she welcomed visitors beneath the elaborate façade of tidy row houses and into the faux-wood paneled tableau inspired by her family’s 1970s living room, at a press preview of the show. Replete with floral-patterned furniture, a record player, an array of houseplants, and a triptych of her mother and first muse, Sandra Bush, the room is equal parts mesmerizing and inviting. For Thomas, domestic spaces have long offered respite from the perils of racism and oppression faced by Black and queer people. Creating a familiar place of acceptance and community within the once unwelcoming public sphere is a radical act of reclamation. “No matter what’s happening in your life outside, once you walk through the door, you’re here. You’re welcomed and accepted,” Thomas said.

Installation view of Mickalene Thomas: All About Love at The Broad, Los Angeles, May 25–September 29, 2024.

Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of The Broad.

The sincerity and intimacy Thomas’s work brings to bear on the space refuses passive spectatorship. From the start, visitors are engaged in a reciprocal relationship of openness, presence, and attention. The crowded altar in the following gallery, covered in personal photographs, inspirational magazine clippings, critiques from graduate school, a hand-drawn note with the words ‘you got this,’ and a series of candles and crystals, acts as an offering on the level of ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.’ The eight-foot-long self-portrait on the adjacent wall of a reclining odalisque swathed in floral silks and surrounded by a dizzying patchwork of lavish fabrics and ornate patterns appears as a transfiguration of the shrine’s teeming contents. The artist transcends the sum of her many influences, experiences, and identities.

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Installation view of Lounging, Standing, Looking 2003

Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of The Broad.

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Installation view of Portrait of Maya #10, 2017. Rhinestones and acrylic paint on canvas mounted wood panel 96 x 84 in.

Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of The Broad.

Thomas also lends her likeness to a series of collage paintings portraying what appears to be two women but are in fact both Thomas wrestling with herself in animal print body suits. Their fierce expressions and sensual positions index the archetypal conflict between mind and body.

Elsewhere, a photograph of Thomas in the nude collaged across 12 television screens is intermittently replaced by historical representations of women, while in the background, an audio recording of a 1989 interview with Eartha Kitt speaking candidly about the abuse and suffering she experienced on account of her sex and race plays on repeat. Taken together, the myriad self-portraits tell the story of an artist determined not only to survive but to unapologetically thrive and create a space where others can do the same.

Installation view of Mickalene Thomas: All About Love at The Broad, Los Angeles.

Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of The Broad

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Thomas is best known for her colossal collage paintings of commanding Black women intimately posed in vibrant mise-en-scenes. No matter the series, her women share an air of unabashed self-possession; their confidence and command are magnetic. They are desirous and desirable. Thomas’s admiration for her subjects is made tangible through accentuations of light, effervescent textures, gleaming surface adornments, and an irreducible glow that escapes obvious material explanation.

Her subjects, often portrayed luxuriating in one another’s company, are either erotically entangled or engaged in an intimacy that manifests as deep, enduring friendship. They assume positions of rest, relaxation, and leisure. Thomas consistently reappropriates art-historical poses and reimagines famous paintings by French male artists like Gustave Courbet and Henri Matisse. As is the case with her astonishing 24-foot-wide reprise of Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, where she replaces the group of clothed men and naked women lounging in the woods with a trio of glamorous Black women in opulent dresses. Thomas confounds narrow beauty standards and restores agency to the fully realized women basking in their own sensuality.

din avec la main

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.

© Mickalene Thomas

this is where i came in

This is Where I Came In 2006 Rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel 72 x 60 in.

© Mickalene Thomas

a little taste outside of love

A Little Taste Outside of Love 2007 Rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel 108 x 144 in.

© Mickalene Thomas

Thomas repeatedly returns not only to the same models but also to the same materials and methods. “Once you have a relationship with your materials and tools, you can understand their power and operating processes,” explained Thomas, who has been exploring collage and incorporating rhinestones since her time in the M.F.A. program at Yale School of Art in the early 2000s. A quick comparison of some of the oldest works in the career-spanning exhibition with those made in the past year illuminates the artist’s ingenuity and unrelenting drive toward recombining elements into increasingly greater wholes. For example, the mixed-media paintings based on her mother’s old Jet magazines from the 1970s comprise all the familiar materials—rhinestones, acrylic paint, canvas on wood—still, the images are made anew.

Installation view of Mickalene Thomas: All About Love at The Broad.

Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of The Broad.

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Employing pixelated forms, fluorescent colors, and a sense of ongoingness as if the paintings were still in the process of becoming, Thomas continues expanding the meaning and making of desire. The rhinestones trace elegant contours, the transparent photo-based images reveal the real bodies beneath the painterly facades, and illusory strips of blue and pink tape call attention to the composition’s unlikely visual unity. Despite Thomas’ numerous surface interventions, they continuously transcend fracture.

“When you see her embracing the present moment, fully aware of who she is and happy, you want to take that on and embrace it for yourself,” explained Thomas. “That’s where the heart is and the healing, for you and the community.”

Mickalene Thomas: All About Love is on view at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles through September 29, 2024.

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