Stumbling into SAM’s meticulously curated Pop Departures! exhibit, I hoped to discover a Warhol outside of its natural habitat. One of his many Marilyns confronted me at the entrance, and after recovering from the shock, I wandered through the gallery until I was accosted by a rhinestone-encrusted series of pieces. A black woman, her image created through grey, white, and charcoal rhinestones, stares at the viewer, her gaze challenging and direct. An arresting and thematically complex series, I stared at the piece for an eternity before finally remembering that I was part of a tour.
I’ll be honest, the race of the subject was of intense interest to me. A black woman in fine art is lucky to appear, let alone be the sole subject. It’s shocking to see a person of color in art celebrated and even revered. Mickalene Thomas’ body of work, and her Hair Portrait series – currently being exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum – display a remarkable appreciation, both erotic and personal, of women that endure the burdens of femininity and color.
SAM’s talk featuring the artist became a revelation of itself. Mickalene Thomas appeared honest and practical, with a wit that didn’t quite blister, but reminded the audience of the biases that haunt the art world. While the curator seemed bent on discussing academia and the color palettes and mediums used in Thomas’ early work, Thomas turned the conversation toward how her personal life affected her perceptions and subjects.
Thomas proved the kind of speaker that makes you fascinated with the color of a kitchen, so it’s safe to say that she’s a magnetic personality. When the curator first probed Thomas on her year in Giverny, I expected a historical background full of almost interesting facts on the Impressionist movement, but no. Thomas thoughtfully uncovered an artistic lifestyle that seeped into everyday life and began the seeds of interior decoration. She discussed her relationship with her mother and muse, and the documentary she created based on several interviews with her mother. A good deal of the discussion was centered on that relationship, along with Thomas’ fascination with environments and her year of artistry in Impressionist Claude Monet’s house.
Not only did Thomas prove her works are provocative and necessary for societal progress, I came out of her lecture feeling both sanctified and splendid – a rarity indeed.