ParisMickalene Thomas: Beyond the Pleasure Principle
Lévy Gorvy presents Mickalene Thomas’ Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Paris, the third chapter of a multipart exhibition that unfolds across four international cities during fall 2021 to present interconnected bodies of new work, ranging from painting and collage to installation and video.
In conjunction with the exhibition at Lévy Gorvy Paris, Thomas will present a series of large-scale collages at Galerie Nathalie Obadia’s new location at 91, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the 8th arrondissement. Over the past 20 years, Thomas has cultivated a distinctive vocabulary of Black erotica, Black sexuality, and Black queer aesthetics and thought through her expansive multidisciplinary practice. With the sequential premieres of Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Lévy Gorvy’s locations in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong, and accompanying exhibition at Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris, Thomas sets out to formally, spatially, and philosophically draw attention to the central study of her work: the power and desirability of Black women, and their presence, imprint, and legacy in global avant-garde visual culture. Thomas’ exhibition at Lévy Gorvy features five large-scale paintings from her Resist series as well as a new film, Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced (Resist) (2021), that explore the central role of Black women within civil rights activism from the 1960s through the present day. While a uniquely American movement, the struggle for civil rights has inspired uprisings for human rights around the world for generations. Most recently, Black Lives Matter, originated by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013, has sparked activism against racial oppression in many countries and has connected decades of state violence against Black citizens with systemic inequity and culturally enforced prejudices that inform Black people’s experience across the globe. Thomas commemorates this lineage by combining historical and contemporary photojournalistic images of protests, to position her multigenerational subjects amongst a long succession of powerful female activists that includes Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stacey Abrams, and the many women who have made innumerable contributions to the cause and often go unnamed. Composed of images that are silk screened onto the canvas in layers and reworked in oil and acrylic paint, Thomas’ Resist works offer a response to global unrest, cultural diplomacy, and injustice being enacted upon Brown and Black bodies. In Guernica (Resist #3) (2021), Thomas presents a dense black and white composition populated by iconic images of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protestors and the Civil Rights-era protests, marches, and sit-ins. Thomas underscores the pain and sense of loss with the ghostly reference to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), the artist’s response to the aerial bombing of the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. Here Thomas depicts Picasso’s impaled horse and the women’s agonizing response to witnessing the violence, drawn in shadowy overlay across her silkscreened compositions. Though spanning decades, Thomas’ compositional juxtaposition of Guernica, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Lives Matter mirror each other, acknowledging that the fight for civil rights continues to be an ongoing struggle in the endless pursuit for justice. In Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced (Resist), a five minute eleven second, multi-channel video installation, Thomas translates the unique aesthetic qualities of collage to her approach to filmmaking by presenting a compilation of documentary footage extrapolated from archival and news sources featuring key moments from the Black liberation movement and composition by American jazz drummer, composer, producer, and educator Terri Lyn Carrington. The screens, hanging in a collaged configuration in the middle of the space, and offering multiple vantage points, play the same narrative but at varying intervals, creating a beautiful cacophony that is at times out of sync. Like a jazz composition, Resist offers a visual and auditory manifestation of divergent threads that are made harmonious by the deft calibration of its layered parts—an allegory itself for political struggle and liberation. The intermingling of references throughout the Resist series compresses history into a poetic critique of the static nature of race in America, where enduring inequality and racism, and the country’s refusal to account for it, remains a pivotal political force. Images of legendary African American cultural critic and writer James Baldwin, whose quote inspired the film’s title, can be found throughout the series as if to reiterate that too little has changed and acknowledging that his words and teachings continue to resonate as fervently today as they did during his own time. At Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Thomas will feature a series of large-scale mixed media collages from the artist’s Jet Blue series, composed of various materials, fabric, paper, rhinestones, photo silkscreen, acrylic and oil paint. Also referencing Picasso, in this case his Seated Women series, Thomas incorporates images of the Jet Magazine calendar pin-up models from the 1960s and 70s, and engages the formal qualities of some key predecessors such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Faith Ringgold, as well as Henri Matisse, a demonstration of the diversity of cultural traditions that conceived modern art and thought. Through this confluence of Black pop culture and art historical references, Thomas expertly manipulates the formal qualities of the avant-garde—which at the time emphasized freedom, fluidity, experimentation, and non-hierarchy—within the political paradigm of Black liberation, embodied in “Black is Beautiful” aesthetics promoted by Jet Magazine, itself the vanguard of American thought and culture. For Thomas—whose work has long depicted the beauty, desire, and power of Black women in order to subvert the material and cultural oppression and marginalization to which they have been subjected—engaging in a cultural touchstone like Jet underscores her determined commitment to visibility and historical and contemporary celebrations of Blackness, femininity, transgression, and queerness. Through her presentations at both Levy Gorvy and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Thomas presents a fuller picture of both the internalized and externalized struggle for civil rights: the private agony and suffering made public alongside unbridled expressions of freedom, joy, and beauty—two sides of the endless pursuit for justice. Thomas’ works in Paris overall call attention to the Black women at the frontline of a battle they fight whether they choose to or not, and through whose labor and sacrifice, millions of people around the world have achieved something closer to the ideals of liberty and democracy.
Installation view, Mickalene Thomas: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Lévy Gorvy Paris 2021. Photo: Claire Dorne