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  • Self-possessed, poised, and timelessly elegant, the titular subject of Portrait of Lili in Black and White radiates the kind of confidence and sensual beauty that is typical of Mickalene Thomas’ rhinestone and glitter encrusted portraits. Joyous celebrations of Black femininity, these visually dazzling works delight in the construction of beauty and artifice as much as they critique it. Infusing Old Master convention with a heady blend of 70s Afro cool and kitsch, Thomas collapses historical specificity in her liberating and inclusive visons of feminine power and beauty. 

     

    Lili and the Old Masters 

     

    A recurring subject in Thomas’ oeuvre, Lili has appeared in several works by the artist, including the vibrant Something You Can Feel, now in the permanent collection of the Detroit Museum of Art. Although clearly distinct in terms of size, medium, and material, they establish a familial relationship that reveals a lot about the artist’s practice. As with all her paintings, this suite of Lili portraits proceeded from a single source image – a carefully staged photograph of taken by Thomas in her vibrantly patterned and wood-panelled studio. Speaking with actress and activist Whoppi Goldberg recently, Thomas described these sittings as collaborative performances – a radical and dynamic exchange between artist and model that disrupts the power dynamics historically assumed in portraiture. 

    'Just like my first muse, my mother, all of my muses possess a profound sense of inner confidence and individuality. They are all in tune with their own audacity and beauty in such unique ways. They are unafraid to exude boldness and vulnerability at the same time, and most importantly, they are real.' —Mickalene ThomasWith her legs casually crossed over the heavily patterned furniture, a flash of tiger print on the soles of her shoes giving a more rebellious edge to her smart belted dress and hat, Something You Can Feel takes a relaxed approach compared to the more formal Portrait of Lili in Black and White. Closely cropping the wide-angled source image to a bust portrait, Thomas places a series of limitations on her subject including a monochromatic palette, denuded setting, and the tightly fitted oval format of the work itself. Presented in three quarter profile, her shoulders drawn back in an elegant curve and her gaze focussed outward beyond the picture frame, Thomas’s Portrait of Lili recalls Old Master conventions, and strikes a particular visual resonance with Piero della Francesco’s tempera portrait of the Duchess of Urbino. Turning to Old Master paintings, Thomas discovered a way of expanding the sexual agency and freedom of her subjects, often against societal expectations. As she describes: ‘That’s why, compositionally, I like to put Black women in the same positions as the subjects in Old Master paintings, because it’s about having that freedom to just be in the moment, to recline without doing work. Can’t we just recline? Can’t we have that moment of being looked at without having to have all of this baggage? Can’t we luxuriate?’i

     

    With her hair swept back under the elliptical swoop of her fashionably titled hat, its netted veil carving a latticed arc across her forehead, the presentation of Lili reads like a glamorous 20th century update of the Renaissance duchess whose ornately brocaded dress, beads, and elaborate headband all speak to a finely tuned sense of the prevailing style of the times. However, while the duchess’s pearl chocker is certainly impressive, the scalloped edge of Lili’s rhinestone-encrusted dress and the densely jewelled surfaces of er eyes, lips, and hair all speak to a radiant power that comes from within the subject herself. 

     

    Piero della Francesca, Battista Sforza, wife of Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, c. 1465, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Bridgeman Images
    Jazz and blues Singer Billie Holiday on the cover of Ebony magazine where she speaks about her detoxification, July 1949. Bridgeman Images

    Restricted to black and white and the close confines of the oval panel, Portrait of Lili in Black and White possess a remarkable energy that is emphasised by the field of tiny, inlaid black rhinestones that heavily outline her form. Like the hard-edged and clear-cut material, itself, this glittering aura is not only deeply alluring, but strong and resilient, like a protective layer of armour cast around her. Thomas articulates this duality perfectly, explaining that ‘a lot of the layering of material and patterning is about their own journeys, their own perseverance, their own struggle […] mostly it’s about the artifice of what you might think you see and the reality of it being another truth.’ii 

     

    Combining beauty and strength in this manner, Thomas’s approach to her materials here speaks to the influence of 1970s pop culture on her work, drawing on the glam aesthetics of Blaxploitation films and representations of women of colour in publications such as Ebony and Jet. With their inclusion of amateur as well as professional models in their spreads, these magazines created a space that acknowledged and celebrated the performance of femininity ‘beyond a Black aesthetic’, exploring ‘the idea of covering up, of dress up and make up—of amplifying how we see ourselves.’iii

     

    Forming the focus of a series of works presented in Thomas’s multi-venue Lévy Gorvy exhibition Beyond the Pleasure Principle which opened in New York in September, Thomas’s engagement with this historical source material allows her to craft the powerful and inclusive statements on power, sexuality, and normative standards of beauty that we see in Portrait of Lili in Black and White. The artist’s inclusive vision extends well beyond her treatment of her subjects to encompass the viewer’s experience as well, most effectively realised in her 2019 exhibition Better Nights at the at The Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach. Including an immersive installation modelled on the 1970s-inspired décor featured so prominently in her portraits, Thomas invited her viewers to adopt the same claims to visibility and identity as her muses, to ‘feel present with fierceness and boldness […] to claim their rightful spaces in the world.’iv 

     

    In her immersive installation Better Nights at The Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach, 2019, Thomas invites us into the world created in her pictures and invites us to share in the same glamour and self-validation enjoyed by her subjects.


    Collector’s Digest

     

    •    Mickalene Thomas has been the subject of considerable attention in recent years. She is currently the subject of a four-location show opening this month across Lévy Gorvy’s galleries in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. 

     

    •    Her work will also be addressed in the first career-spanning monograph published with Phaidon later this year. 

     

    •    Earlier this year Portrait of Jessica sold for a record price for the artist at auction with Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, New York. 


    i Mickalene Thomas, quoted in ‘Mickalene Thomas and Whoopi Goldberg on Artistic Freedom’, Interview Magazine, 9 September 2021, online 
    ii Mickalene Thomas, quoted in ‘Frieze NY Special: In the Studio with Mickalene Thomas’, Lux-Mag, Summer 2020, online 
    iii Mickalene Thomas, quoted in “From the Archives: Mickalene Thomas on Why Her Work Goes ‘Beyond the Black Aesthetic,” in 2011,” ARTnews, September 14, 2018, online.

    iv Mickalene Thomas, quoted in ‘Artist Feature: Mickalene Thomas’, Nailed Magazine, 6 June 2016, online

    • Provenance

      Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago
      Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2008)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Chicago, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Girlfriends, Lovers, Still Lifes and Landscape, 21 November 2008 - 10 January 2009

    • 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

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Portrait of Lili in Black and White

signed, titled and dated ‘PORTRAIT OF LILI in Black and White, 2008 M. Thomas’ on the reverse
acrylic, rhinestones and enamel on wood panel
152.4 x 121.9 cm (60 x 48 in.)
Executed in 2008.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£150,000 - 250,000 

Sold for £252,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741
[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 October 2021