Through her elaborate manipulation of mixed media materials, Mickalene Thomas emphasizes the complexities of race and femininity under the telescope of societal norms of beauty. A New York City-based artist originating from New Jersey who received her education in painting at the Pratt Institute in 2000 and Yale University in 2002 (“Mickalene Thomas”), Thomas utilizes a range of media that notably is commonly associated with feminine outlets of ornamentation, such as rhinestones and glitter, in combination with her painting.
Her 2007 piece A Little Taste Outside of Love, for example, combines meticulously placed rhinestones along the outline of the figure out an African American female nude gazing suggestively at the viewer. This piece, emblematic of a bulk of her oeuvre, whimsically contextualizes the image of the African American female in a style intimating traditional European mannerist paintings of the female nude, additionally placing it on a backdrop stylistically related to 1970’s retro imagery, enhanced by the glitz and glimmer of the rhinestone. The piece effectively translates to be evocative of a tongue-in-cheek discourse on the African American woman and her perceived beauty in the era of civil rights transposed into a contemporary setting.
A piece of Thomas’ that does not explicitly evoke issues of race and the feminine is her piece currently installed in the Norton Museum of Art: a site specific installation entitled faux real. In this piece, Thomas’ use of mixed media converges on a dialogue on the material itself and its ability to create space (or the illusion of space) in all its complexities in the context of a landscape. With graphic elements of varying colors and saturations and values strewn across a wall, the piece is legible as a landscape at a distance and yet reads as a conglomeration of images only slightly intimating a recognizable scene from a closer perspective.
Mickalene Thomas’ work intrigues me because it seems to borderline what I view as “kitsch” art, which I am in no way well-versed in nor attracted to. With my own designated classification of Thomas’ work her pieces — especially those featuring African American females — do not seem to me to be quite at kitsch, but rather an odd straddling between satirically retro imagery and imagery that is beautiful for its composition and spatial ambiguity. In a way, I feel as though even without any comprehension of the imagery of the era she satires, I could read her pieces as aesthetically self-reliant in their aesthetic imagery. This indistinctness yet beauty to her work emphasizes its intended purpose when then placed into the dialogue of history once again, implicating Thomas’ dexterity in facture.