Michalene Thomas is a contemporary New York City artist, who has painted portraits in various formats of African American women – her “muses.” Thomas uses the aesthetic, which defined her childhood, as she combines the fashions of the 1960s through the 1980s with pop culture and classical art in large-scale works.
Thomas came to New York to study at the Pratt Institute. She received her M.F.A. from Yale University and saw images of contemporary African American families and women in the photography of her mentor Carrie Mae Weems.
Her bejeweled and enamel paintings show gorgeous women – including her mother – in powerful and provocative poses. They have attitude, self-confidence, and the big hair of that time period, which spanned the civil rights and the “Black is Beautiful” movements.
Thomas begins her process by photographing African American models and projecting their pictures onto large white panels, the basis of her paintings. Her paintings borrow images and poses from master artists such as Ingres, Manet, Bearden, Courbet, and Matisse’s odalisques.
Thomas remade Manet’s 1863 “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” replacing his three people with three mod-looking African American women. She has inserted herself in the place of the woman in Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” 1866. She also painted a version in which her partner, artist Carmen McLeon, holds the same pose.
Thomas credits her residency in Giverny, France for bringing the idea of beauty into her paintings. Her works show an emphasis on stylishly designed home interiors when she paints her women in indoor settings. Her integration of oil, enamel, and acrylic paint with less conventional materials, such as rhinestones and crystals, defines the surface of her wood-panel paintings. She will use rhinestones to highlight the eyes and lips of her women creating dazzling surfaces.
Thomas was commissioned to create a painting for the windows of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Her painting featured three African American women staring brazenly out at pedestrians. For Thomas, this was an opportunity to insert herself into MoMA’s largely white-male canon. “I studied; I went to art school. I entered in the canon once I decided to go to art school. I’m not just some artist working in a garage somewhere.”
Thomas was chosen to create art for the Leimert Park station of Los Angeles’s Metro Crenshaw/LAX line. She included elements of the community’s environment and collaged them. She has also been working on a series of collages and portraits of “Femmes Noires” which opened in New Orleans.
She has been awarded numerous prizes and grants, and her work has been shown in group exhibitions, one of which was in the Seattle Art Museum. In 2012, she had a mid-career survey at the Brooklyn Museum which featured her large-scale relief paintings celebrating black women in lavishly decorated interiors.
Her work is held in many collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, International Center of Photography, Musees des beaux-arts de Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum of Modern Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and others.