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  • Overview

     

    As art critic Kimberly Lamm once wrote, the word ‘dazzling' would not suffice to describe Mickalene Thomas’ shimmering portraits of women. Working across a variety of media — photography, collage, painting, video —Thomas builds from existing imagery to compose her mesmerising paintings, infusing their subject matter with individuated power, historical importance, and resounding referentiality of former contributions to the genre of portraiture. As expressed by Olivia Parkes, Thomas ‘strikes a careful balance between celebrating beauty as something sensual and addressing it as a set of ideals that can be harmful to those who don't conform to them. It's this ability to contain contradictions—to wrestle stereotypes, history, and the demands of the culture industry into loud but harmonious images—that makes her one of the most important artists working today’.1 Importantly, Thomas re-imagines Black female subjectivity and envisions her subjects through a liberated lens — ‘a gesture that dares to assert a more inclusive understanding of what—and whom—blackness may represent’.2

    'I love everything about women and more – confident women, smart women, the I-don’t-give-a-sh*t women, with all shades of Blackness.' —Mickalene ThomasEncrusted with rhinestones and beaming with glitter, Clarivel Right is undeniably dazzling; and yet, there is something more urgent that emanates from its layered rendition. The woman at its centre — the eponymous Clarivel — looks outwards, solemn and bold, as if attending a hearing or posing, knowingly, for a work of which the importance does not elude her. She is at once there and not, establishing all the power of her existence whilst denying our gaze as the sole validation of it. In fact, Clarivel is a recurring subject matter within Thomas’ oeuvre. The very photograph she used as a foundation to create the work appears multiple times throughout her painterly repertoire and alters to various degrees. While Clarivel with Orange Earring, executed a year after the present work, presents a mainly photographic rendition of the woman, for instance, the present portrait is more abstract, more layered, weaving a variety of materials in its midst to ornate the otherwise all-too traditional medium of acrylic and oil painting. Notably, the first work by Thomas to enter the Davis Museum’s collection is also a portrait of Clarivel.


     

    Mickalene Thomas, Clarivel with Black Blouse with White Ribbon, 2016. Museum purchase, The Nancy Gray Sherrill ’54 Collection Acquisition Fund 2017. Photo ©2019 Mickalene Thomas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
    Mickalene Thomas, Clarivel with Black Blouse with White Ribbon, 2016. Museum purchase, The Nancy Gray Sherrill ’54 Collection Acquisition Fund 2017. Photo ©2019 Mickalene Thomas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

     

    Photographing, Stitching, Painting

     

    Upon looking at Clarivel Right, one is struck by the meticulous construction of both character and compositional pattern. Thomas’ artmaking process is equally minute. After photographing her subjects, the artist cuts elements, adds and removes motifs, pastes disparate images to make the collages that will later serve as studies for her paintings. Notably, her method of layering constructed images and shiny accessories reflects her vision of the photographed and painted protagonists; ‘A lot of the layering of material and patterning is about their own journeys, their own perseverance, their own struggles’, she explained. ‘The residue, the unearthing of time and space, is about their scars, and mostly it’s about the artifice of what you may think you see and the reality of it being another truth.’3 With Clarivel Right, one can infer the character associations Thomas envisioned upon considering her sitter — glamour, power, elegance, sensuality. Clarivel is unapologetically assertive; her patched-up appearance, sober in areas and resolutely scintillating in others, conveys the richness of her interior persona.

     

    The artist in her studio. Image: © Mickalene Thomas.

    The Female Muse

     

    At the outset of her photographic and painterly career, Thomas would use images of herself as a visual starting point to compose her collaged works. She had begun developing this practice at the Pratt Institute, where she obtained her BFA, and later at Yale University, where she graduated with an MFA in painting. Soon, she began to expand upon the theme she had first engaged with through images of her own likeness, delving instead into a wider realm of femininity, looking at women she knew, or Jet Magazine’s ‘Beauty of the Week’. ‘When I began to work with other women’, she said, ‘who were mostly my friends, family members, and lovers, using my tableaux as backdrops for their portraits, I wanted them to engage with the space, just as an actress would entering a theatrical stage’.4 Explaining that her practice is in fact a love letter to womanhood, Thomas further mused, ‘I love everything about women and more – confident women, smart women, the I-don’t-give-a-sh*t women, with all shades of Blackness. When I think of all the women in my life, I think of those who have mentored me, about those I’ve read about in books and their stories. I think about all the women who have trail-blazed and sojourned that I aspire to be, about all the women who I haven’t met yet and who protect me’.5

     

    Meet the Artist

     

     

    1 Olivia Parkes, ‘Artist Mickalene Thomas Is Bringing Black Women into the Canon’, Vice, 5 August 2016, online.

    2 Derek Conrad Murray, ‘Mickalene Thomas: Afro-Kitsch and the Queering of Blackness’, The University of Chicago Press Journal, reproduced online.
    3 Mickalene Thomas, quoted in ‘Frieze NY Special: In the studio with Mickalene Thomas’, Lux-Mag, Summer 2020, online.
    4 Mickalene Thomas, quoted in Olivia Parkes, ‘Artist Mickalene Thomas Is Bringing Black Women into the Canon’, Vice, 5 August 2016, online.
    5 Mickalene Thomas, quoted in ‘Frieze NY Special: In the studio with Mickalene Thomas’, Lux-Mag, Summer 2020, online.
     

    • Provenance

      Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris
      Private Collection, France (acquired from the above)
      Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Mickalene Thomas: Femme au divan I, 11 September - 28 October 2014
      New York, Studio Museum, Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art, 13 November 2014 - 8 March 2015

    • Artist Biography

      Mickalene Thomas

      American • 1971

      Influenced by Lacanian psychology as much as by the glam aesthetics of 1970s Blaxploitation films, artist Mickalene Thomas subverts conventional canonical formats to unravel notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Thomas’s complex works incorporate a wide range of media including rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel to create richly layered collage-like compositions that explore the inner natures of her sitters against the contradictions and misconceptions of identity. She produces portraits of African American women using vocabularies of the art historical canon and contemporary celebrity photography to render her subjects as powerful agents of their identities. Often depicting her sitters, whom the artist frequently refers to as “muses,” in the poses of the odalisques of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Édouard Manet, Thomas subverts traditional forms of representation and presents a complex and empathetic vision of the myriad experiences of Black woman in contemporary America. Her sitters return the viewer’s gaze, supercharging their potent presences.

      Thomas came to making art under precipitous circumstances; inspired by a retrospective of the work of Carrie Mae Weems while she was studying law in Portland, Oregon, Thomas has since devoted herself to exploring identity in visual terms. Her work incorporates a huge variety of influences, from Édouard Manet and Henri Matisse to Weems and Kehinde Wiley, and has been the subject of major retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

      View More Works

8

Clarivel Right

signed, titled and dated 'Clarivel Right, 2014 M. Thomas' on the reverse
rhinestones, acrylic, oil, enamel and glitter on wood panel
213.5 x 152.5 cm (84 x 60 in.)
Executed in 2014.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£220,000 - 350,000 

Sold for £315,000

Contact Specialist

 

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+ 44 20 7318 4060
[email protected]

 

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+ 44 20 7318 4099
[email protected]

 

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021