Desire in the Abstract | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Desire in the Abstract 

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Mickalene Thomas

When Through 11/25

Where Rhona Hoffman, 118 N. Peoria

Info 312-455-1990

Mickalene Thomas's works at Rhona Hoffman are engaged with issues of race and gender. But unlike most identity artists, Thomas eroticizes her subjects. Her art is also gorgeous--especially the eight large paintings of African-American women, rendered in bright colors and covered with rhinestones, which are used like brushstrokes to add shine to clothing and furniture. Though Thomas used different models, all the figures are similarly bold, posed seductively and staring at the viewer; they're both homogeneous and differentiated, subtly questioning the nature of black female identity but reaching no conclusions.

Thomas discovered black women singers as a kid. "I was extremely infatuated with Whitney Houston," she says. "I had Whitney Houston posters all over my bedroom and locker." At about the same time she discovered Ebony magazine, which inspired her with its positive images of ordinary African-Americans: "They showed a range of different lifestyles, including middle-class working women and families." She was also fascinated by Jet magazine's "beauty of the week" contest, for which readers could submit photos--"A lot were college girls or housewives, strong, beautiful black women." Her mom worked as a part-time model in addition to the social-service jobs she had, and Thomas modeled briefly as well.

Raised in New Jersey, Thomas moved to Portland, Oregon, in high school. Her family's sometimes marginal economic situation made her think about becoming a corporate lawyer--until she got a taste working in the office of a corporate litigation firm after high school. She quit and started working at a restaurant, where she met and was befriended by some artists. When she was going through a difficult period, one of them suggested an art-therapy workshop: "I began drawing really bizarre self-portraits, very personal, very dark, showing myself with really crazy locks. They were very linear, flat, but full of color." A friend took a few to a portfolio day, where art schools recruit students, and a professor from the San Francisco Art Institute suggested Thomas would be admitted.

Thomas was accepted at Pratt and moved to New York City in 1995, when she was 24. Soaking up the art in museums, she was attracted to the impressionists, neo-impressionist Seurat (whose pointillism is echoed in her rhinestones), and painters of female beauty: Balthus, Matisse, Gauguin, Modigliani. In school, however, she worked abstractly. Even after taking figure drawing she felt her renderings looked naive rather than realistic. A trip to Australia to study aboriginal art confirmed her interest in abstraction: "I loved the way these abstract dot paintings used something very geometric and very flat to create this sense of aerial space." Most of her friends then (and now) were gay male artists, and noting the way some embraced kitsch she began to add sequins and glitter to her abstractions. While in grad school at Yale she began painting figuratively as well as abstractly and "searched for a way to bring the two together." One instructor encouraged her to incorporate her unique style of figure drawing into her abstract paintings. Early efforts included a painting of her mother (after Thomas found photos of her at about 30, posing in a leopard-skin bathing suit in the style of the Jet beauty of the week) and portraits of pop icons, including some she'd wanted to emulate as a child. "For the first time I was working with the figure in a way that I was comfortable with," she says. "It was more rewarding than abstraction, because it allowed me to investigate and research black identity and black femininity."

Thomas's allusions to majas and odalisques put images of black women in a new context, and her subtle differentiation of skin tones demonstrates the endless varieties of "black." In Les Trois Femmes Noires ("The Three Black Women") each woman is a slightly different color, but all the evenly painted skin tones stand out against the hot colors, rhinestone-covered clothes, and glittering furniture. In A Moment's Pleasure the red-and-blue plaid background is as striking as the two lounging women. These paintings work as both color abstractions and representational images, the works themselves as strong and seductive as the figures in them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): A Moment's Pleasure.

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