Staying the Course: An Evening with Mickalene Thomas

As a member of the Portland, OR Contemporary Art Council (CAC), I receive invitations, on occasion, to events featuring lecturing, well-known artists from across the country and around the world. In spring of 2017, the CAC offered me the opportunity to attend an evening at the Portland Art Museum with former Portlander, Mickalene Thomas, a contemporary artist now working out of Brooklyn, NY. I was thrilled at the prospect of listening to and directly interacting with this powerful female creator to discover, in greater detail, the way she uses materials, what inspires her work, and why she does what she does.

In considering my own compositions, which are a reflection of years spent exploring the limits of and pushing the boundaries of my materials, it is no surprise I was immediately drawn to Thomas’s choice of materials and found them to be undeniably visually engaging. Integrating elements such as rhinestones, glitter, acrylic & enamel, Thomas creates mostly paintings, photographs and collages, comprised of vibrant patterns, which are texturally rich in both surface and color. Stunning portraits and sensual, female nudes reflect influences of Manet and utilize patterning reminiscent of Matisse, while incorporating ideas and imagery recognizable in cubist and pop-art culture. It is the unique voice Thomas brings to the proverbial art table, however, which most enticed me to hear her speak.

As a black, gay female, Thomas’s works shine light on the black female form as beautiful and powerful yet still placed within the context of a society that persists with stereotypical sexualized imagery as portrayed in Blaxploitation films of the 1970’s. Through her images, Thomas, whose own mother was a ‘70’s model and later went on to feature prominently in many of Thomas’s works, comments on the importance placed on beauty within the American black community. By demonstrating the literal “masks” women have adopted to set themselves apart and assert some form of position in a society that underestimates and devalues their worth, Thomas compels those who witness her art to dispel with generalized notions of the black female. Her work incites that people of all backgrounds question their perceptions of beauty, femininity, gender, race, sexuality and power.

In a discipline that has often discounted the works of women and which is certainly underrepresented by black female artists, it is heartening to behold the works of artists like Mickalene Thomas, which challenge the possibilities of what a woman can be. I am also grateful for events like the ones the CAC provides. Tucked away in a studio, it is easy for an artist to become consumed with a particular line of thinking and get lost in her own creative endeavors. To remain relevant and interested, one must stay abreast of issues being discussed in contemporary art and society. It is always illuminating to gain an understanding of the ideologies inspiring the creations of my contemporaries. By witnessing the courage displayed along other artists’ paths, I am propelled to stay the course of my own and am reinforced with the strength to share my inherent, unique vision.

Mickalene Thomas’ show, with Robert Colescott and Kerry James Marshall opens compelling perspectives on Black culture and representation in an ever changing social and political landscape – Feb 15th – May 13th 2018 at Seattle Art Museum.

To view her art and read her bio, visit Mickalene Thomas’ page on Artsy.