Lévy Gorvy Announces Mickalene Thomas: Beyond the Pleasure Principle




MICKALENE THOMAS. Jet Blue #25 (detail), 2021. Rhinestones, acrylic paint, chalk pastel, mixed media paper and archival pigment prints on museum board mounted on dibond, 84.25 x 61 in (213.995 x 154.94 cm). © Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Dominique Lévy and Brett Gorvy, co-founders of Lévy Gorvy, announced today that the gallery will host an international exhibition unfolding across its spaces in four world capitals—New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong—over the course of fall 2021, unveiling interconnected bodies of new work by acclaimed American artist Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971, Camden, NJ). This multi-site presentation, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, will feature paintings, installations, and video works that expand Thomas’ decades-long exploration of the Black female body as a realm of power, eroticism, agency, and inspiration, and a vehicle for reformulating familiar visual idioms of modernism inherited from some of the 20th century’s most influential masters. Presented in uniquely designed environments for each of the four locations, Thomas’ exhibition will also include a video made in collaboration with her life partner and muse Racquel Chevremont, an art advisor, curator, and collector.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle will open in a series of related, overlapping chapters:

Beginning September 9, Lévy Gorvy’s landmark building in New York City will host the first of this progression, debuting Thomas’s latest large-scale Jet paintings—works that reclaim images from vintage Jet Magazine pin-up calendars—presented in a totalizing environment. Since its inception in 1952, Jet has played a central role in Black American life via its political and cultural coverage, including extensive attention to the Civil Rights movement, as well as its coverage of beauty and fashion trends spawned by the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1970s. The subjects of the Jet paintings are women featured in vintage issues of the magazine, recontextualized by Thomas through an array of material techniques, including silkscreen, oil and acrylic painting, and application of rhinestones, in a deft approach to collage that accentuates the historical quality of her distinctive visual language. While Thomas’ subjects are anonymous, she celebrates the beauty, strength, and individuality of these women in a way that honors their full ownership of their bodies and identities.

Alluding to a 1987 hit song by Janet Jackson and a 1920 landmark essay by Sigmund Freud, the title Beyond the Pleasure Principle signals Thomas’ personal, artistic, and political intentions while also acknowledging the intersection of influences and techniques that underlie her work.

June, 1977, 2021. Rhinestones, acrylic and oil paint on canvas mounted on wood panel with mahogany frame, 86 x 72 inches (218.44 x 182.88 cm).
© Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In New York, the inaugural chapter of the exhibition will debut ten large-scale paintings composed of silkscreen, oil and acrylic paint, and rhinestone application, and featuring images of archival photos of Black women sourced from vintage Jet pinup calendars. Here, departing from the artist’s well-known practice of choosing friends, family, and lovers as models, Thomas widens her consideration of the representation of Black women’s bodies in art, media, and politics to include existing images from the 1970s. By overlaying these vintage images with abstract and geometric gestures and interventions—the exaggeration of archetypal emblems of beauty such as lips, eyes, and hair—Thomas invites us to reflect on the complex forces that shape our understanding of beauty, desire, identity, and power. Through her use of Jet pinup models, Thomas reclaims, in imagery and spirit, the power and agency of these anonymous women, transforming them from objects of desire to authors of their own narratives.

As a prominent chronicler and voice of African-American politics and daily life in the postwar era, Jet magazine (published by the Johnson Publishing Company form 1951–2016) challenged common perceptions within American society through its unflinching coverage of the violent realities of white supremacy as well as its reporting on the everyday interests of African Americans, which included aspirational features that uplifted Black celebrities, artists, and intellectuals. The magazine routinely featured “Beauties of the Week” in an effort to defy Eurocentric beauty standards and promote the enterprises of young Black women. For Thomas—whose own work has long depicted the beauty 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, and queerness.

In the works debuting in New York, Thomas engages the formal language of the avant-garde of the late 19th and 20th centuries—which emphasized freedom, fluidity, experimentation, and the dismantling of hierarchies—within the political paradigm of Black liberation, itself a vanguard of American thought and culture.

Beginning September 30, the gallery’s London Mayfair space will present the second chapter of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with paintings that continue Thomas’ exploration of archival materials from Jet. The artist’s first London solo show, this presentation will feature her Jet Blue series—paintings in which Thomas resituates historical source material to offer a new, contemporary vision of beauty and identity that defies stereotypes and outdated respectability politics. This presentation will include an experimental video collaboration by Thomas and Chevremont.

Opening October 7, the exhibition’s Paris chapter at Lévy Gorvy’s recently inaugurated space in the Marais district, will unveil Thomas’s most recent sociopolitical series of large-scale Resist paintings focused on Black American Civil Rights activism from the 1960s to the present day. These works explore the historical lineage of women who have long led the fight for true democracy and equality in the face of relentless violence and dehumanization of Black and Brown bodies. Featuring overlapping silk-screened images of protesters and other archival photos from the Civil Rights movement, worked with oil and acrylic painting, these multi-layered canvases reveal a more overtly political aspect of Thomas’s practice.

In conjunction with the exhibition at Lévy Gorvy Paris, Thomas will present a series of collages at Galerie Nathalie Obadia’s new location in the 8th arrondissement.

The Hong Kong presentation at the gallery’s Ice House Street space in Central will open on October 15 with a body of work—Tête de Femme—in which Thomas engages her art historical predecessors, with a focus on Picasso, Leger, and Warhol, to assert a new type of self-reflective history painting. Through abstracted, fragmented, and reassembled forms, the works on view exemplify a pioneering approach to portraiture characterized by a bracing use of color and unapologetic approach to scale and geometric elements.

The exhibition’s title, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, conflates the titles of two opuses that have informed Thomas’s work: The Pleasure Principle, from Janet Jackson’s 1986 studio album Control, and Sigmund Freud’s landmark 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle. While Jackson’s song is an anthem of love, loss, and female empowerment, Freud’s essay posits connections between the id, repression, free association, and libidinal freedom. By intersecting Jackson and Freud to name her exhibition, Thomas signals specific artistic, philosophical, and political intentions as a queer Black woman in the world, while also acknowledging a formal technique central to so much of her complex and arresting work.

Artist, Mickalene Thomas. Image courtesy of the Gallery

‘Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.’
—  James Baldwin

Critic Sasha Bonét has described collage as ‘a historical practice of Black imagination [that] has helped us to envision unfathomable futures in the face of violence and uncertainty. It has been a creative way to love each other even though we haven’t been shown care, to express the depths of our experiences even when no one ever asked how we felt, to give evidence to all the things unseen.’ Mickalene Thomas utilizes collage to draw together disparate sources. Among these are the work of her Black predecessors Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Faith Ringgold, who broke the conventions of European modernism by incorporating African art, oral history, and quilting aesthetics; the enigmatic photographic portraits of Black female nudes who populated the Johnson Publishing Company’s calendars in the 1960s and 1970s; the formal innovations developed by such artists as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and particularly Tom Wesselmann, reassessed, reconfigured, and deconstructed in Thomas’s oeuvre; and documentary photography that has chronicled women’s central role in the Civil Rights and social justice movements in America and internationally. Through her uncanny use of collage as a tool and language to work across and through various mediums, movements, and eras, Thomas yields works that radicalize and reimagine the Black erotic female body as an agent of urgent dynamism.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle at Lévy Gorvy will be accompanied by a new publication featuring essays and an interview with the artist. The exhibition coincides with the 2021 release of Mickalene Thomas, the first major monograph devoted to the artist’s career, published by Phaidon Press. Made in close collaboration with Thomas, the book will include essays by Roxane Gay and Kellie Jones.

‘We are proud to collaborate with Mickalene Thomas to introduce her latest bodies of work to broad and diverse audiences that span time zones and cultures. In Mickalene’s art we see both strength and vulnerability, eloquence and enigma, a temporal painterly sensibility combined with conceptual rigor. She is a truly great American artist, an inheritor of powerful aesthetic and sociopolitical traditions, who is able to challenge the past, rethink conventions, and propose a different vision for the future. It is our joy and honor to share her work internationally at a moment when its powerful relevance and resonance can serve as a call to positive change.’…… Dominique Lévy of Lévy Gorvy remarked

About the Artist ~ Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971 Camden, NJ; lives and works in Brooklyn, NY) is a visual artist, filmmaker, and curator known for her paintings, collages, photographs, videos, performances, and large-scale installations that draw from and critique art history and popular culture in order to present nuanced representations of femininity, sexuality, desire, and power. Blurring the distinctions between abstraction and figuration, object and subject, real and imaginary, Thomas constructs portraits, landscapes, and interiors that subvert notions of beauty and examine how identity, gender, and subjectivity have been informed by the fetishization of the female body throughout history. The artist’s enduring use of collage as a medium, method of abstraction, and conceptual form, has permeated every facet of her practice. By repurposing and recontextualizing found images from the artist’s personal archive, in addition to mass produced imagery from visual culture, Thomas creates formally complex compositions, imbued with narrative depth, that engage alternative, active modes of looking, and propose a new visual language.

Mickalene Thomas: Beyond the Pleasure will be on view beginning September 9, 2021 at Lévy Gorvy New York, in its historic 909 Madison Avenue building.