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Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit

Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit
signed, titled and dated twice 'Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit, 2016 M. Thomas' (on the reverse of each panel)
oil, acrylic, silkscreen, rhinestones, faux pearls, glitter, graphite and flock on wood panel, in two parts
overall: 96 x 144 in. (243.8 x 365.8 cm.)
Executed in 2016.
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, 2016
M. Lee, "Art Exhibition to Empower Women, Challenge Art History Norms," The Lantern, 11 September 2018, p. 5 (illustrated).
New Orleans, Newcomb Art Museum and Houston, Moody Center for the Arts, Mickalene Thomas: Waiting on a Prime-Time Star, January 2017-January 2018.
Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts, Mickalene Thomas: I Can't See You Without Me, September-December 2018. n.p. and pp. 96-97 (illustrated).
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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Senior Specialist

Lot Essay

With her bold take on the confluence of conceptual portraiture and identity-based compositions, Mickalene Thomas has risen to prominence by deftly mixing photography, painting, and collage into a signature style full of riotous patterns, female empowerment, and art historical tropes. Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit is a dazzling example of Thomas’s ability to transform a staged portrait into a treatise on nostalgia and identity politics.
Creating visually sumptuous arrangements on a grand scale, the artist forces the viewer to reconsider traditional modes in an effort to reassert black female identity as both artist and subject. Critic Roberta Smith noted, “these images draw equally from 19th- and 20th-century French modernism, portrait painting, 1970s blaxploitation extravagance and an array of postwar pictorial styles...In all, Ms. Thomas's portraits, reclining odalisques and figure groups, [...] cover many bases: aesthetic, political, art-historical and pop-cultural. Their sheer complexity makes them seem close to self-sufficient, secure in their ability to reach most viewers on one wavelength or another” (R. Smith, "Loud, Proud and Painted," The New York Times, September 27, 2012). Painted, stylized elements create visual flatness that contrasts sharply with photographs referencing everything from Neoclassical muses to late 20th-century supermodels.
A monumental abstracted portrait of Thomas’s partner and frequent muse, Racquel Chevremont, the current lot is a breathtaking amalgam of painting, photography, and collaged elements. Reclining in a pose only a supermodel can find comfortable, Racquel leans upon a red couch that is swiftly giving way to its most Cubist impulses. Pieced together patterns create pictorial planes that cede into wallpaper, furniture, and the figure herself. The images and textures present have an atmosphere to them that combines the early Pop collages of Richard Hamilton with the Cubist compositions of Picasso and his ilk. However, once these pieces are brought together, Thomas presents a bold image that embraces the colors and styles of the 1970s while still remaining on the cutting edge of contemporary practice.
"The ’70s are a part of my work, not necessarily because of nostalgia but because of a recontextualizing process. I’m reinventing those experiences that I have no memory of. I try to incorporate all these aspects of myself in my work: what I grew up with, what I’m inspired by—textiles, African photography, Yoruban art, Cubism, Matisse. How can I take the ingredients of who I am and put them into a painting? What does that look like? What does that feel like? What’s the residue of that?" (M. Thomas, quoted in S. Landers, “Mickalene Thomas by Sean Landers,” BOMB, July 1, 2011). Associating aspects of her past with objects, patterns, and people (including ex-girlfriends and her mother), Thomas is able to play with nostalgia in a way that problematizes previous representations while still pushing forward without getting mired in the past.
Thomas’s practice is in constant conversation with the history of art and the exclusions made more and more apparent with each passing year. Looking to the exalted artists that she learned about in school, Thomas found none that she could resonate with on a more personal level. The dearth of black female artists in the canon was an impetus for her to reinvent and reassess. By borrowing poses from artists like Ingres and Matisse but inserting images of her friends and loved ones, Thomas reinvigorates these compositions for a new generation. She is equally inspired by the French masters as she is by the conceptual photography of Carrie Mae Weems, an artist whose Kitchen Table Series (1990) posited the artist as both author and muse. Thomas noted in an interview, “[I]t was one of the first times I’d seen contemporary work by an African-American woman. It made me aware of how you can use your experiences as a person and make art out of it” (ibid.). The idea of the muse, so fraught with issues of the male gaze, has been co-opted in Weems’s and Thomas’s works and the subject imbued with a power all their own.
Using her own images as the basis for this composition, Thomas photographed Chevremont in the studio on a custom-built living room set covered with various textiles and fabrics. "Building these environments allows me to compose and really feel like I'm entering the space," Thomas says. "It's looking at the photographic image and then deconstructing that image maybe five more times, layering it, and playing with the scale" (M. Thomas, quoted in G. Bruney, “Mickalene Thomas is Celebrating Our Skin,” Vice, May 4, 2016). By starting with a space that already contains disparate elements and then working it over with paint, collage, and other additions, Thomas creates a final work that vacillates between two and three dimensions. The transformation of a real figure into stylized limbs, exaggerated proportions, and swaths of glitter creates a dynamic dialogue about the portrayal of women in art and the constant struggle to overcome decades of objectification.

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