Clarivel with Black Blouse with White Ribbon
© 2019 Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
One of the premiere American artists of the twenty-first century, Mickalene Thomas explores issues of race, gender, and beauty through striking portraits of women in studio sets filled with color, pattern, and popular culture references. Thomas works in photography, mixed media painting, and digital prints, often combining these elements to lush effect. Her work reveals an admiration for the abstracted figural collages of African American artist Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988).
Thomas portrays Black women personally connected to her: her muses have included her late mother, lovers, and friends. She often applies photographs of the sitter’s eyes, imparting an eerie realness she finds unsettling and energizing. Drawing upon her own identity as a queer Black woman, Thomas has reinvented and reinvigorated the practice of painting women in elaborate settings seen in the work of centuries of male artists. The women in her art are powerful objects of desire, as well as empowered in their own sexuality.
For Thomas, her sitter’s surroundings are critical to the mood and message of her work. The backdrop features 1970s wood paneling, a window view of trees, and fabric covered with ferns. These colors contrast with the black-and-white photography of the model. On the wall is Stevie Wonder’s 1980 album Hotter Than July, featuring “Happy Birthday,” the song Wonder wrote to support making the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a national holiday.