Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires

Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires

Immediately upon entering Femmes Noires at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), you can sense a change in the atmosphere. Mickalene Thomas, is a contemporary New York based visual artist. Femmes Noires ranges from film compilations of black women exploring their nature to incredible larger than life paintings that use rhinestones and sequins, Thomas— and her work, are a vision. Femmes Noires is Thomas’s first solo exhibition, and it holds all that is true blue to Thomas — installations, videography and paintings. Her art is heroically fantastic with a dash of grotesque. It does not reclaim space, but instead uses space that was rightfully hers. What might be considered tacky or unprofessional with her use of rhinestones in her paintings, somehow does the opposite and resonates with the viewer. 

The first room in Femmes Noires contains a handful of large scale paintings, differing in subject, colour and bling. Each painting is energetic and stands on its own two feet with or without the cushion of the surrounding exhibition. All of the women in Thomas’s paintings are dominant and bold, allowing themselves to repeal agains the sequins that are engulfing you. As you exit and move onward, you view one of two living room installations. Initially, the living room comes off confusing, it’s not until you spot the didactic panel which permits you to interact with the display that it begins to make sense. Reading paraphernalia litters the floor, 70’s decor, chairs and pillows provide you comfort to sit and observe the large scale videos on the East wall. As you move onward, Thomas’s wide range of mediums prevails. Leaving behind painting and videography, Thomas brings back the silkscreen with her work, Diahann Carroll #2 2018 without any trace of Andy Warhol — as if she engineered the technique herself. Large scale polaroid photographs taken prematurely and littered with bleach get scanned, blown up on photoshopped and relayed onto a mirror. Diahann Carroll’s face fades into the mirror but somehow remains prominent enough to stand out so that your reflection is hardly seen, not that it’s relevant. 

Thomas was born in 1971, in Camden New Jersey, into a family ran by a single mother, Sandra Bush who was an artist herself. Bush was a model who cared for her children and integrated them into the arts at a young age. In the late 1990’s, Thomas was exposed to local artists with no formal art training and found inspiration, she began to start her own body of work, later deciding to go to art school. Thomas received her Bachelors in Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute in 2000 and later her Masters in Fine Art from Yale in 2002. Embracing her race and sexuality along the way, Thomas started to create collage pieces, incorporating different photographs and 1970’s funky patterns into her work, much like the living room installation at the AGO, which later she reports is the nostalgia of her of her living room in New Jersey.

What you feel when you exit Femmes Noires is sublime. Gender, race, and sexuality these days is a hot and taboo subject topic. Syllabi encompass them, essays surround them and professors command them. While each subject is important to be taught today, it unfortunately has become an excuse for people who think they are artists to create bad art. They become misguided by thinking that if they display such subjects they are the “avant-garde.” However, what most often emerges is blatant anger at the dominant discourse and expressing disgust for it outwardly and yes, Andrea Fraser’s docent imitations do come to mind. It is an amateur way to go against the grain. Yet, on the opposite and nearly impossible side of the spectrum, Thomas explores what it means to be a black woman in America only displaying passion and true talent. She emerges showing herself to us and asking; but not pleading for our validation, with no bad art in sight. 

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