She reclines on a low-rising sofa upholstered by a hodgepodge of vintage textiles: gingham, groovy waves, florals and leaf patterns that echo the ficuses and ferns and cheap fake flowers that surround her throne. On the coffee table, a basket of gold fruit; on the floor—a small, frenzied ocean of layered vinyl and wood tiles and carpet samples—shiny red patent pumps. She looks around the room to gaze at the feline knick-knacks, the collection of books by Alice Walker and Maya Angelou and records by Patti LaBelle and Diana Ross, the tiny old TV playing a video interview with former fashion model Sandra Bush, the framed portraits of poised black women posing on similar couches in similar interiors. A hand mirror rests on one of the patchwork ottomans.
"She" in this instance might be one of artist Mickalene Thomas' models—her friends, her lovers, her mother (the subject of the video interview, also by the artist), other black women she holds up as her "muses." "She" might also be you.
This figurative (and literal) mirror is Thomas' offering to the viewer in this corner of MICA's Meyerhoff Gallery, a reconstruction of a section of her New York studio where she shoots her models. The installation is a part of an exhibition of Thomas' photography, called "Muse," complemented in the same gallery with another show, "tête-à-tête," curated by Thomas and showcasing photographers she admires. Without a model in this setup, Thomas allows the viewer to see herself—or, if you're a man or a white woman like me, the inspiring women of color in your life or in history or culture—stretching out in this '70s domestic interior.
Thomas' portraits hold up a similar kind of reflective power. Known internationally for her large-scale collaged and rhinestone-studded paintings of glorious black women, and for her screen print of Michelle Obama, Thomas is less known but equally prolific in photography, which often plays a role in her painting process. But Baltimoreans might have first seen Thomas' work in the form of photography, as I did, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has in its collection Thomas' 'Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Le Trois Femmes Noires,' on view here in "Muse."
In 'Le Trois Femmes Noires,' three models, skin glowing and draped in bold patterned dresses, pose like the picnickers in Edouard Manet's iconic 'Le déjeuner sur l'herbe.' In Manet's painting, the three figures are white, two are clothed men, and the third is a nude woman, who looks forward at the viewer with a coy expression. Here in Thomas' photograph, three clothed black women gaze forward, confronting the viewer head-on as they share flowers from a bouquet.
The photograph takes on a sculptural nature in "Muse," standing in its frame upright on the gallery floor, forming a corner with another photo, 'La leçon d'amour,' an animal print-laden interior wherein one woman reclines over the legs of another, whose hands gently grip the fingers and upper thigh of the wilted woman—an intimate Pietà-style moment of both sensuality and support from one woman to another. Conjoined, the two photographs anchor the exhibition as images that reinterpret the visual cues of European masters to present the models, Thomas' muses, as layered people with stories and integrity that appear in tandem with—and not in spite of—their sexuality.
In Western history, white male artists and writers created and maintained a culture wherein women were, at best, upheld as "muses": sources of inspiration and material for white male-authored art. Manet had Victorine Meurent, herself a painter who was remembered as the model for paintings like the erotic 'Olympia' and 'Le déjeuner sur l'herbe.' Paul Gauguin had the nameless native women of Tahiti during his long obsession with exoticism. Despite these artworks' historical value, their representations of women failed to capture any sense of depth or, really, humanness in the models—the artists weren't interested in that so much as how the sexuality and beauty of women could function as objects to be visually reinterpreted and played with. For centuries and with few exceptions, this was how women existed in art: at the whim of white men, overshadowed or silenced if they dared to sit on the painter's stool on the other side.
As artist and curator, Thomas reclaims and redefines the "muse" as one who inspires, but not through submission to the white male gaze. Her muses speak for themselves; Thomas brings out the nuance and intersectionality of their identities. The muse-artist relationship is not some divine connection (even though these women are goddesses in their own right), it's a human exchange rooted in realness—friendship, love, admiration, kinship, solidarity.
With the dual exhibition, organized by MICA and the Aperture Foundation, Thomas generously lifts the curtain on her process on multiple levels. There's the studio installation, allowing us into the hyper-saturated world she creates for her models; and the salon-style wall of small photographic collage pieces (including one of Solange Knowles, from the series of portraits Thomas created for the singer-songwriter's EP "True") that offer a glimpse into the transition from photography to mixed media and painting; and the collection of intimate portraits captured through impressionistic Polaroids. Through these we can trace Thomas' material process, not just from set to photograph to mixed media but from the moments she shares with her subjects to the staggering photographs that open to the beauty, self-empowerment, tenderness, and sexuality of people—an end in itself.
Then there's another level of the artist's process that diverges from the material. Thomas isn't subtle about the historical influences in her photographs or paintings: We easily pick up on elements drawn from blaxploitation, "black is beautiful" glamour, and European masters.
But through "tête-à-tête," she reveals another dialogue, one that doesn't stretch through time or personal history but through the artwork of her contemporaries and predecessors—Derrick Adams, Renée Cox, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, Hank Willis Thomas, Malick Sidibé, Lorna Simpson, Xaviera Simmons, Lyle Ashton Harris, Ellen Gallagher, and Carrie Mae Weems—who, like Thomas, place black bodies in the foreground of human complexity through revealing photographs. By pairing the photographs with her own, Thomas presents the back-and-forth they share in expressing the depth and range of black lives, from the confrontational sexual autonomy of the model in Deana Lawson's 'Hotel Oloffson Storage Room,' to the generational intersections of LaToya Ruby Frazier's 'Grandma Ruby's Porcelain Dolls' and 'Grandma Ruby Holding Her Babies,' to the tender moments of female kinship captured by Malick Sidibé in 'Les Deux Soeurs' and 'Baptême.'
The contextual synapses formed by the grouping of these images along with Thomas' begin to approach the impossible: a complete portrait of people who meet at intersections of identity. It comes down to patchwork, a dimensional collage taken from the pieces of real lives, freed from history's narrow traditions and layered to form a kind of glorious interior, as simple yet as telling as the articles in a woman's living room.
"Muse" and "tête-à-tête" are on view at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Meyerhoff Gallery through March 12. For more information, visit mica.edu.