Be My Guest: The Art of Interiors

Mickalene Thomas’ work locks the viewer through the strength of the gaze of her subjects. She sees each sitting—be it with her mother, with women learning to project their power, or with men who have had sex changes and now live their lives as women—as collaborative. Rather than the artist as choreographer, the models, through the wigs and makeup artists at their disposal, present to her lens the way they want to be represented. These portraits, which often become the starting point of her elaborate paintings composed of rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel, also introduce the viewer to a complex vision of what it means to be a black woman within universal (i.e. Eurocentric) definitions of beauty. The “sets” are mostly created in a corner of her studio where the wood paneling is installed. The couches, props, and boxes of fabric are set up for each shoot and have recently been incorporated into exhibitions of her work.

The constructed interior space of Mickalene Thomas’s Left Behind Again is informed by multiple art historical sources, including Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse and Romare Bearden, as well as Pop Art and contemporary popular culture. Comprised from over twenty printed and assembled elements, this piece presents complex notions of race, female beauty, and identity. Thomas’s stunning use of patterns, color, and textures support and highlight the central figure. Thomas has said of her intent, “from my experience in Western art history, when you see images of black women they’re generally depicted in positions of servitude or looked at through an anthropological perspective – I was interested in whether I could change those perspectives with the art that I made.”