Artists create their own unique worlds. Good artists create worlds you want to explore and get to know better.
But Mickalene Thomas goes further than that: She creates a world that makes you want to sit back and stay in a while — and listen to what her subjects have to say.
In “Waiting On a Prime-Time Star,” her gorgeous, revelatory new exhibition at the Newcomb Art Museum, Thomas presents dozens of her distinctive, glittering collage portraits along with a few sculptural objects.
It's the first New Orleans exhibition of her work, which has been the subject of major shows at the Brooklyn Museum and MoMA PS1 in recent years.
"It's a wonderful opportunity for me to exhibit my work at Newcomb,” Thomas said. “More importantly, I’m most excited to have my first solo exhibition in the South be in New Orleans. There is not a better place for me to have my work shown. The culture, arts and spirit of New Orleans is kindred to who I am as an artist.”
Thomas’s work addresses concepts of feminine beauty — specifically African-American feminine beauty — through an intensely personal lens that incorporates not only materials like rhinestones and gold leaf but also a range of references from 19th century French painting to mid-20th century pin-ups.
The centerpiece of the Newcomb show is an installation recreating the type of living room which will be instantly familiar to viewers of a certain age, complete with faux wood paneling, groovy lamps, a basket of artificial fruit on the coffee table, and colorful mismatched pillows on the sofa. Anyone who has firsthand memories of the 1970s will feel an instant twinge of nostalgia.
But this isn’t just any living room. Several of Thomas’ portraits, which appear to have been taken in similar interiors, grace its walls, the record pile overflows with albums by Thelma Houston and Diana Ross, and books by Toni Morrison and James Baldwin are prominently displayed on the tables and shelves.
As such, it becomes not just a nostalgic evocation of a particular time and place, but a layered and joyous celebration of an entire identity.
“These interior spaces are also signifiers and stand-ins for portraits because we construct our spaces in various ways to express ourselves,” said Thomas in an interview accompanying the show.
In the center of the room a television broadcasts the literal and conceptual heart of the entire show. Created for Thomas’ solo show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2012, “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman” is structured around an interview Thomas conducted with her mother Sandra Bush, who became the subject of many of Thomas’s portraits (Thomas describes her as her “muse”) before her death later that year.
By turns delightful and sobering, “Mama Bush” takes Thomas, and the viewer, through a series of visual and verbal snapshots about her life: her experiences growing up in Camden, New Jersey in the 1950s, her near-brush with fame as a model (she was turned down as the token African-American in one agency in favor of another newly discovered model named Iman, and her turbulent marriages and struggles with substance abuse.
Elsewhere in the show, more portraits of her share wall space with pictures of Thomas’s other frequent subjects and collaborators, including musician (and New Orleans resident) Solange.
But it’s Mama Bush’s presence that’s most likely to stay with you long after you leave. Her beauty and resilience gives “Waiting on a Prime Time Star” an emotional resonance and depth beyond its seductive surfaces.
And it’s an integral part of a show that Thomas hopes will connect with viewers on a deeper level.
“I'm hoping that someone standing in front of my art will feel a sense of possibility and accessibility,” said Thomas. “Just as my muses insist on their visibility and identity, I want my viewers to feel present with fierceness and boldness. It's our right to claim this space.”
Mickalene Thomas: “Waiting on a Prime-Time Star”
WHEN: Through April 9
WHERE: Newcomb Art Museum, Woldenberg Art Center, Tulane University
INFO: (504) 865-5328; newcombartmuseum.tulane.edu