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‘Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs’ and ‘Tête-à-Tête’What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week
New York Times

What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week

It might be sacrilegious to admit that I like Mickalene Thomas’s photographs better than the lavish, collagelike paintings that made her famous. There is a clarity and simplicity to the photographs; a rawness and immediacy I find preferable to the calculated baroque excess of the paintings. The two practices are connected, though: Many of the photographs on view in “Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs” at Aperture served as sketches or studies for those paintings.


Throughout her work, Ms. Thomas riffs on art history. In “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires” (2010), a large-scale C-print that also exists as a painting, she recreates Édouard Manet’s 1863 canvas “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” depicting bohemian artists lounging in a park. Manet also painted African-Europeans, however, like the maid waiting on a courtesan in his notorious “Olympia” (1863). In “Le Déjeuner,” as in photographs throughout this show, Ms. Thomas hijacks Manet and other European painters, placing women of color at the center, lounging in ersatz landscapes of collaged fabric — animal prints, upholstery and bedsheets — wood paneling and store-bought flowers.


The “Tête-a-Tête” portion of the show makes explicit Ms. Thomas’s formal and spiritual kinship with other black photographers. Works by Lyle Ashton Harris, Derrick Adams, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Deana Lawson, Renée Cox, Zanele Muholi, Xaviera Simmons and Hank Willis Thomas hang alongside a photograph by the Malian master Malick Sidibé, linking contemporary practices and traditions of African portraiture, with its creative posing of subjects and juxtapositions of contrasting textile patterns.


What is clear throughout this show, however, is the reigning significance of the women she refers to as her “Afro goddesses” and “Afro muses.” As she explains to the artist Carrie Mae Weems in the accompanying book, claiming a space for these women is “very exciting because that space is my space.”