Over the last ten years, Mickalene Thomas has become known for large-scale paintings of American women provocatively posed against boldly patterned backgrounds adorned with rhinestones. Her work explores notions of beauty, sexuality and black female identity. Thomas's use of rhinestones and vivid textile patterns adds an even greater sense of drama and sensuality to her paintings. She is one of many contemporary artists experimenting with non-traditional materials, particularly glitter and sequins. For Thomas, the rhinestones evoke folk art traditions and Haitian voodoo art. They also serve as a metaphor for female beauty products, which can both enhance and mask a woman's identity.
Thomas's work stems from her study of art history and the classical genres of portraiture, landscape, and still life, and is inspired by a wide range of sources, from Hudson River School landscapes to Henri Matisse’s nudes and Romare Bearden's collages. Although her paintings often reference the familiar compositional arrangements of odalisque paintings, Thomas imbues her subjects with an agency and action seldom seen in the canon of figurative painting. Portrait of Mnonja is a stunning example of Thomas's recent work. The reclining figure is posed in a sassy contrapposto and situated against a wood-paneled background redolent of a seventies-era living room. She wears a loose-fitting white blouse with a plunging neckline, and her hair is pulled back in a low bun. Her right hand rests on her knee, revealing nail polish that matches her audacious pink heels. She exudes dignity and self-assurance.
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