In the past, Mickalene Thomas has playfully revised paintings by artists such as Édouard Manet and Henri Matisse, inserting black women into positions originally occupied by white figures. Her latest work revisits this idea of recreating canonical work. Aptly presented under the title ‘Tête de Femme’ (Woman’s Head), Thomas’s new pieces (all 2014) employ the forms and structures of abstraction and cubism to create portraits of contemporary women.
The works comprise collaged facial features – eyes, eyelashes, cheeks, noses and lips – together on wooden panels. The portraits are unnamed, with one exception, Carla. In some cases, as with Untitled #6, the features appear fairly consistent; in others, it is difficult to believe that a single individual was the source of inspiration. In Untitled #7, for example, the shape and colour of the eyes are mismatched, and in Untitled #8 the sitter’s face is represented across separated horizontal panels, a gesture that breaks the image, and its strict sense of cohesiveness, in two.
But while the collaged shapes are reminiscent of Picasso (from whose iconic portrait the show borrows its title), the colour palette is distinctly Thomas’s. The paintings are bright, and, in some works, lush patterns and glitzy rhinestones are laid over portions of the faces. In Untitled #10, a Warholian flower printed in black and white takes the place of the figure’s right eye. It is a rare monochromatic spot in an exhibition otherwise full of brash colours: turquoise, lilac and, in Untitled #10, a combination of lime green and a shade of flamingo pink. The nod to Warhol points to Thomas’s other stated point of reference, pop art. And indeed, her reduced figures seem also to allude to Warhol’s odes to female icons, which presented leading ladies (and a First Lady) in prints that both canonized the subject while also transforming her likeness into a simplified form ripe for mass production.
In reducing her images to basic, geometric structures, Thomas robs her subjects of their particulars and lets them become representations of a more universal kind of womanhood and beauty – one in which markers of race, ethnicity and age are lost. Though they are based on individuals, the women represented here might be reflections of us all. And ‘reflection’ is an appropriate term. With their rectangular shapes and sometimes-visible frames, many of the works on show actually resemble mirrors. In Untitled #7, for instance, Thomas has painted shadow lines around the edges of the collage pieces, making them appear not as paper, but as jagged, 3D shards of glass. She also looks to the computer, arguably this era’s mirror: in Untitled #6 elements of a woman’s face are laid over a grid that evokes those used in Photoshop and other forms of digital retouching.
The mirror is, of course, capable of reflecting flaws. It is also easily susceptible to damage or distortion: chipping, warping, clouding or shattering – the latter an act which, to superstitious minds, can bring years of bad luck. The evil potential of the mirror is poignantly and humorously depicted in Carrie Mae Weems’s photograph Mirror, Mirror, (1987) which Thomas has cited as an influence. In this piece a young black woman asks, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the finest of them all?’ A white witch from inside the glass responds, ‘Snow White, you black bitch, and don’t you forget it!!!’
Thomas’s collages confront the mirror head-on. Rather than reflecting traditional standards of feminine beauty, in Thomas’s hands, the mirror becomes a space of construction and play where all women can be ‘fine’.