BETTER DAYS: A MICKALENE THOMAS ART EXPERIMENT
By Adrienne Edwards
“Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”
Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971, Camden, New Jersey) has originated a visual iconography and conceptual paradigm that are distinctly her own. She is best known for paintings and photographs in which she concurrently composes and contrives representations of primarily black women through an astounding array of aesthetic, art historical, quotidian, cultural, and social references. Thomas’ artmaking is a multi-disciplinary endeavor. Her body of work is impressive in its range and complexity, encompassing painting, photography, video, film, performance, and installation art. More than crossing genres, her work traverses historical space and time, from the Yoruba ethos to Parisian Belle Époque to Aboriginal civilization to 1970s black radical aesthetics, into a world all its own.
Better Days is a weeklong project for Absolut Art Bureau at Art Basel. Situated on the second floor of Volkshaus No. 5, in The Gallery, the approximately 2,000-square-foot Art Bar is, in Thomas’ words, “a communal space, a space for congregating, where people can unveil themselves, engage in conversation, be a part of something.” While the work may be interpreted as installation art, since it creates conditions that the audience embodies and thus activates the space, for Thomas it is an experiment. She thinks of Better Days as a space and time for possibility, expansion, and being toward a future potential.
Better Days is named after the parties that the artist’s mother and muse, Sandra Bush, would throw for her theater group in the 1970s to raise money to produce plays, such as Put a Little Sugar in My Bowl, as well as for charitable causes, including sickle-cell anemia. The artist, in partnership with Swiss architect Jens Müller, has created a series of rooms set within the original walls of the Volkshaus. Upon entering the space, visitors have a sense of disorientation as they meander along a lengthy corridor reminiscent of an alley. This “back street” gives way to four lounges and an outdoor terrace. Inside, clusters of comfortable seating await the guests, draped in the artist’s iconic mélange of fabrics, culled from a diversity of African textiles, swathes of IKEA patterns, and discarded clothing discovered at thrift stores.
The walls of the in situ construction convey the feeling of an actual home, decorated with layers of faux-wood paneling, mirrors, and wallpaper. The floor is an amalgamation of linoleum, wood, and carpets that have been cut and arranged in geometric patterns, a juxtaposition of materials and time. Large ’70s-era chandeliers dangle in the lounge area, and a faux-copper ceiling gleams in the bar. The ambience is refined with candles, inset lights, lava lamps, and dimly lit lanterns that cast tones of amber, crimson, and rose. The original architectural elements of the Volkhaus peer through the corners of the room. The interplay of the real and the artificial aspects of the mise-en-scène is never hidden from view.
The materials involved in Better Days have important roles in Thomas’ aesthetics. The faux-wood paneling is prominently featured in the sets that she creates to photograph her models (a phase in her process for making paintings), as a wallpaper print in collages, and as fragments in her two-dimensional works. The mirror alludes to an intriguing aspect in Thomas’ process, in which she poses and comports her body in a mirror as a way of situating herself kinesthetically in her work. Thomas has been including a group of black artists in her installations for some time now. Artworks from this dynamic community of like minds, including Derrick Adams, Duron Jackson, Jayson Keeling, Wangechi Mutu, Xaviera Simmons, and Lorna Simpson, are featured in Better Days.
A custom-designed hybrid bar made of faux Formica completes the domestic setting. Thomas has designed a medley of cocktails inspired by drinks that would typically be served at house parties. All are provided in a motley mix of period housewares: painted glassware, gold-rimmed stemware, and kitschy mugs. Punch, the house-party beverage of choice, is on offer in three versions: Phuck U 1, Phuck U 2, and Phuck U 3—a reference to soul singer Millie Jackson’s “Phuck U Symphony,” from her 1979 live album, Live and Uncensored/Live and Outrageous. In addition, Thomas created three cocktail symphonies with a personal resonance: Mama Fay Clarke, a variation of the White Russian, one of her mother’s favorite drinks; Proud Mary, a rosemary-infused vodka martini that Thomas often serves at her own fêtes; and Ms. Ginger Bitch san, a ginger-sake martini likewise inspired by her mother’s sassiness, and a nod to Thomas’ Buddhist upbringing.
Since 2010, Thomas’ interest in domestic spaces has begun to range beyond the sets framing her images to being the very subject of her compositions. She created a series of paintings based on Claude Monet’s residential settings, including the inventive Monet’s Salle à Manger Jaune (2011). Thomas fuses landscape and interiors in Interior: Blue Couch with Green Owl (2012), which is appropriated from ’70s interior-decorating books such as The Practical Encyclopedia of Good Decorating and Home Improvement. In these works, Thomas manipulates original photographs to achieve a deeply self-reflexive interpretation. Better Days bears a striking relationship to this emergent approach in Thomas’ painting although there is more going on here than what meets the eye. The experiment demands the engagement of all five senses, as well as the practical senses of desire and love. It asks participants to actualize the space. Much as Thomas appropriates paintings for her self-expression, participants in Better Days are invited to infuse their presence into the work, thus completing and transforming its deep sensual dimensions.
Better Days features Thomas’ iconic ’70s interior-design aesthetic, with some notable refinements. Overall, the space is more visually cohesive than her earlier sets and installations, originally seen in 2012–13 at the Brooklyn Museum, Lehmann Maupin, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The choice of fabrics keeps to a color scheme of burnt oranges, ochers, and ombrés, as opposed to the more quilt-like loose color combinations she has used in the past. Gone are the platforms on which she previously arranged her sets. These changes lend a sense of openness and intimacy to the work, bringing it more in line with a domestic setting. Materials are introduced from other eras. Thomas mixes décor from the 1960s and ’70s as well as today to create a structured encounter between the decades past and our present moment.
Thomas’ enactment of durational time, which is also to say her iconography, is decidedly of the 1970s. She explains: “The ’70s are part of my work, not necessarily because of nostalgia but because of a recontextualizing process. I’m reinventing those experiences that I have no memory of.” In so doing, she fabulates that which she cannot recall, structuring works in a realm of fantasy, where the plausible and the merely imagined coalesce. This aesthetic of fabulation makes the past, present, and future inseparable. Memory is spatialized as fragments, assemblages, and multiplicities.
Thomas’ work has been linked to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. However, the decade also belongs to many other pivotal events in the black radical tradition. These events and their images are deeply embedded in our collective memory. Thomas reimagines in her work the black radical tradition’s politics and aesthetics for her own utopian aims. We only have to think of the buoyant Afro halos of Angela Davis and the women of the Black Panther Party; the strident lyrics of the Last Poets; the conceptual performance interventions of Adrian Piper’s Catalysis and Mythic Being series and William Pope L.’s Times Square Crawl; the first-time bid by a black woman for president of the United States by Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; the openings of alternative art spaces Just Above Midtown Gallery, in New York City, and Brockman Gallery Productions, in Los Angeles, which featured experimental work by black artists; and the critical contributions of black and black queer feminists, such as the Combahee River Collective, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde.
The fact that Thomas’ images and installations address black female subjectivity has been explored extensively. Less has been written on how her work illumines the intersections of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Thomas explores these links through fragmentation, disorientation, and fabulation of time and space as an aesthetic of queer futurity. In this respect, Better Days gives voice to queer theorists, particularly José Esteban Muñoz and Judith Halberstam, who have posited concepts of queer temporality and its relationship to space. For Thomas, queer is understood as an aesthetic concept and as a specific relation to particular bodies. The particularities of identity in the United States, and the brutal oppressions and exclusions that have been experienced by those who identify as lesbian, gay, genderqueer, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, questioning, intersex, two spirit, ally, or asexual, render queer as incapable of being an entirely abstract concept. Queer is enforced in the visual field primarily through the body, and by insisting on alternative possibilities of being that resist monolithic interpretations. Thomas’ works embody these possibilities and complexities through a consistent language that is uniquely her own.
The intersectionality of identity in Thomas’ works emerges in the form of spaces of disorientation. Her creations erect a multitude of aesthetic and conceptual off-lines in the context of the normative straight lines of art and society in the West, which are always already read as white, straight, and oblique. Better Days as a territory of sonic reverberations, somatic resonances, and assemblage of objects and materials constitutes a matrix of slanted lines that are constantly in flux. These aesthetic maneuvers are reflective of the black and queer lived experience.
Thomas’ queer utopia is filled with potential. It is a way of being in the world, and also of creating a world that lies beyond the limited possibilities of the present. Better Days illuminates the utopic endeavor in all of Thomas’ art that is being, doing for, and toward a queer futurity. For it is not about imagining a past that cannot be revisited, but about pursuing horizons of a possible future. It is a cartography of aesthetics, feelings, and performances that structure an emergent social realm that will enable a wider range of social relations. She glances backward to enact a future vision, to “surpass the limitations of an alienating presentness and allow one to see a different time and space.” Thomas’ paradoxical backward glance is, in fact, forward action in the now, or what C.L.R. James called “the future in the present.” She puts utopia in the service of people who have been consigned to more pessimistic realities—those who are disenfranchised and discriminated against. Better Days disavows straight time and straight lines through disorienting asymmetries of time and space, for, in Muñoz’s words, “queerness should and could be about a desire for another way of being in both the world and time, a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough.”
Thomas has said, “Queer spaces usually are almost always for me more inclusive and where there are no boundaries.” She is interested in the ideology and productive function of queer space and time, and how black queer identity necessitates a constant negotiation of real and perceived center and peripheral spaces. Thomas’ experiment in Better Days is compelling because of the possibilities that emerge from its lack of fixity. It readies visitors for an experience of sheer pleasure that is derived from the wonders of astonishment of that which envelops them—a new world.
 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.
 Mickalene Thomas, interview by author, New York, NY, April 15, 2013.
 Sean Landers, “Mickalene Thomas,” Bomb, Number 116 (Summer 2011), 35.
 Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 135.
 Muñoz, 5.
 C.L.R. James, The Future in the Present: Selected Writings (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1977).
 Muñoz, 96.
 Mickalene Thomas, interview by author, New York, N.Y., April 15, 2013.
Adrienne Edwards is Associate Curator at Performa, PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at New York University, and Curator-at-Large for Third Streaming.