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2020 SPE Annual Conference: Hosted by The University of Houston | Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts | School of Art

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MUSE: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête

Mickalene Thomas (U.S., born 1971), known for her large-scale, multi-textured paintings of domestic interiors and portraits, also identifies the photographic image as a defining touchstone for her practice. Thomas first began to photograph herself and her mother as a student at Yale—a pivotal experience for her as an artist.

While working across multiple series, much of her photographic work functions as a personal act of staging and reappropriation—both of images she has created herself and images she has singled out as influence. With each series, she grapples with and asserts new definitions of beauty and inspiration. Thomas' portraits draw equally from 1970s black-is-beautiful images of women such as supermodel Beverly Johnson and actress Vonetta McGee; Édouard Manet's odalisque figures; and the mise-en-scène studio portraiture of James Van Der Zee and Malick Sidibé, to mention a few. 

Perhaps of greatest importance, however, is that this collection of portraits and performed scenes reflects a very personal community of inspiration as well—a collection of muses that includes herself, her mother, and her friends and lovers, emphasizing the communal and social aspects of art-making and creativity that pervade her work. This exhibition and its accompanying publication are the first to gather together Thomas' various approaches to photography, including chromogenic color prints, collages, and Polaroids. The exhibition at the Henry also includes a reconstruction of the artist's studio, a tableau depicted in many of the photographs.

The idea of communities of inspiration is further carried out via tête-à-tête, an installation curated by Thomas of work from photographers and key images that have inspired her. This includes work from older generations of artists as well as more contemporary artists who are part of her generation or younger, and may in turn find inspiration in Thomas' own practice. Artists in tête-à-tête include Derrick Adams, Renée Cox, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lyle Ashton Harris, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, Malick Sidibé, Xaviera Simmons, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems.

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