New York

Mickalene Thomas, May 1977, 2021, rhinestones, glitter, acrylic, and oil on canvas, 98 1⁄8 × 82 1⁄8".

Mickalene Thomas, May 1977, 2021, rhinestones, glitter, acrylic, and oil on canvas, 98 1⁄8 × 82 1⁄8".

Mickalene Thomas

There used to be a joke that went around the art world: When is a painting finished? The answer: When it goes to the conservator. The truth lurking in this gag addresses the experience of many painters who’ve realized they didn’t always know when to quit. Mickalene Thomas’s strength, in part, resides in the very fine line she walks between a fabulous intricacy and a dizzying overabundance. In her show of collaged canvases here—the first of four successive exhibitions, all to be titled “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” and to be staged throughout the fall at Lévy Gorvy’s other branches, in London, Paris, and Hong Kong—her trademark surfaces are dense, decorative, and fiercely wrought. It’s abundantly clear that she’s completely comfortable with overload, but she has also calmed the dazzle down in several paintings for this outing, opting for an approach that’s less fraught and more serene.

The unifying theme of the ten paintings and one sculpture in this presentation is derived from nude pinup calendars published by Jet magazine during the 1970s, which championed the beauty of young anonymous African American women. Thomas appropriates the vintage photographs and redirects their sensuality and playful seduction in the service of her ongoing articulations of Black lesbian desire.

In the canvas September 1977 (all works 2021), the model—despite the glitter, rhinestones, and variously textured cutout elements that abstractly animate the rhythmic composition—looks relaxed in the open space she’s been accorded. The full-length portrayal of her body retains the photographic quality of the original printed source, which distinguishes her silhouette amid visual pyrotechnics and gives the impression of a woman who owns the space she occupies with a quiet but undeniable confidence. Similarly, in May 1977, another comely nude beauty in a lovely, seated pose isn’t fragmented, flattened, and dispersed but is visually unified, whole—as if she exists in a world apart from her spectacular setting. Spatial depth creates a pictorial environment that makes room for the viewer’s own absorption into the picture.

Other works, such as February 1971 and February 1975, also include images of Jet models, but the figures are more heavily embedded in a plethora of surface effects chock-full of patterns, materials, and linear traces; also, their faces are largely obscured with overpainting. In these tableaux, all the emphasis is on pleasurable formal elements and spectacular craftsmanship. Yet what lies “beyond the pleasure principle” is a discourse that grounds Thomas’s art in the politics of gender and race. If you knew nothing about her practice and her own sexual orientation and identity, it wouldn’t take you long to perceive the underlying content and artistic intent. Thomas includes short stacks of books casually positioned in front of several of the canvases; volumes that theorize the queer Black female body, reinforcing the exhibition’s conceptual framework. And it must be stated that Thomas orchestrates a beautiful detournement of genre painting, plucking odalisques, bathers, and marvelous muses right out of pasty male art history and giving them new life as imaginary lesbian lovers. The same goes for the pinups, whose appeal and seductive powers are no longer in service to patriarchy but liberated as emblems of queer power, sensuality, and feminine freedom.

Thomas’s work is in huge demand. At a time when LGBTQIA+ freedoms are seriously under assault—and being queer can get you killed in more places than we might like to think possible—taking the discourse of Black queer feminism on a journey around the world and being met with such acclaim is quite a feat. (The jury, however, is still out on whether all corners of the art world truly care about diversity and inclusion.) Meanwhile, Thomas continues to blaze a trail, undeterred in her defiance of institutional norms that once marginalized artists like her. Culling and synthesizing from virtually every dimension of culture, she creates an informed and expansive aesthetic that is broad in its appeal and insistently subversive in its message.