Femininity, race, sexuality, art history, identity and power. These are the themes explored in New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas’ new exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
Thomas’ exhibit, “I Can’t See You Without Me,” will bring more than 50 paintings from her extensive body of work to the Wexner Center and is set to open to the public Friday.
While Thomas creates works across many different mediums, “I Can’t See You Without Me” is concentrated specifically on her large scale and thought-provoking paintings.
“The focus of [the exhibition] in talking to Mickalene was focused primarily on her painting — although there’s work across media — but really [looks] closely at four muses and collaborators who have been … among the most important figures in her career trajectory,” said Lucy Zimmerman, assistant curator at the Wexner Center.
The exhibit is organized into four galleries, each devoted to Thomas’ four muses: her mother, herself, her former lover Maya and her life partner Racquel.
Michael Goodson, senior curator at the Wexner Center, said the exhibition is also about challenging older art historical concepts, such as the male gaze, which views women as objects for men.
“[Thomas’ work] essentially looks deeply at the history of painting, which is a history replete with men and the ideas of men,” Goodson said. “She sort of reclaims both in terms of being a woman, and furthermore being a black woman, and furthermore a black woman who is a lesbian.”
Thomas accomplishes this not only by using the art historical concept of the muse, but also by taking a look at how black women were portrayed in blaxploitation films — films exploiting black stereotypes — in the 1970s.
“I think she’s kind of thinking through these limited and somewhat flat ideas of how women are presented and really then thinking lovingly of her family, her relationships, and putting these women — elevating them on the same level as any other subject,” Zimmerman said.
Thomas’ relationship with the Wexner Center started a few years ago when Goodson attended an art show by Thomas in New York City. Shortly after, Goodson and Zimmerman curated an exhibition titled “Grey Matters” that featured an elaborate 20-panel art piece by Thomas in 2017.
And now, Goodson and Zimmerman are bringing Thomas’ works to the Wexner Center once again.
Zimmerman said she hopes the exhibition draws questions and reactions from the students who attend, whether it’s a simple comment such as, “That’s a really cool looking picture” or the question, “Why are women always portrayed as such?”
Goodson’s wish for the exhibit is that it causes an introspective conversation on a deeper level when viewing the work.
“I hope that the show has an immediate impact for viewers, a visual, almost physical impact on viewers that then leads them to the deeper ideas for the show,” Goodson said. “That’s my ultimate hope for the exhibition.”
The exhibition opens on Friday and is free for all students. Thomas will also be at the Wexner Center at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday for a conversation with Beverly Guy-Sheftall, chair of comparative studies at Spelman College in Atlanta.