Mickalene Thomas’ Material Intervention: Recontextualizing the Black Female Nude in June 1977
By Madi Shenk
In her multimedia painting, June 1977 (2021), Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas subverts photographic source image’s original context by partially camouflaging the depicted figure with rhinestones, acrylic paint, and digital distortion. The work confronts the viewer with a frenzy of colors and textures to subvert the heteronormative beauty ideals assigned to women in mass media materials. The combination of textures within the composition produces a hypnotic effect—a “lure of the surface” that destabilizes the viewer’s encounter with the figure. Thomas uses strategies of visual excess as a means of obscuring and reimagining elements of the female body within the work. Her layering of media creates a topographical richness within the painting’s surface that complicates the act of viewing and leads to a multifaceted reading of the depicted figure. In doing this, Thomas creates an image that oscillates between the preexisting associations attached to the source images and the monumental display of Black feminine empowerment that she presents through material intervention.
While Thomas’s work calls upon histories of hyper-sexualization of the female nude by white male viewers, art historian Derek Conrad Murray points out that her work often deals with histories of interracial misogyny, “particularly in the male-dominated 1970s Black Power era,” Murray defines Thomas’s work in relation to what he calls “post-black visual art,” arguing that it is a marked rejection of heteronormative understandings of Blackness. This is done precisely through Thomas’s inclusion of images steeped in heteronormative beauty ideals. The collaged elements within this painting are taken from a photograph of a Black female model from the “Beauty of the Week” segment of Jet magazine. Established in 1951, Jet was a weekly magazine directed towards male and female adult African American readers. The contrast between articles targeted to women that provided instructions for attaining feminine beauty versus the sexual character of the “Beauty of the Week” photographs clearly meant to display archetypes of the Black female form reflect a time in which mainstream media (in both Black and white spheres) largely reflected the ideals of men.
Thomas’s fragmentation of the nude female figure within June 1977, in combination with the smooth and textured planes of paint, rhinestones, photocollage, and digital manipulation, creates a sense of instability of the painting’s surface and subverts the viewer’s perception of the figure within it. This is evidenced through Thomas’s decision to pixelate the most sexually charged area of the original image in which a bouquet of flowers has been stuffed into the model’s underwear.
The detail shows an amorphous shape situated in place of the female figure’s abdomen and pubic area, delineated by a thick contour line of gray rhinestones. The image itself is not pixelated—it sits behind a grid-like system of squares creating a sense of contrast between the hard-edged pixelation and the gritty materiality of the 1970s-era source photo. At first glance, it is difficult to discern what is being depicted here. The organic forms may initially read as abstract shapes in grayscale or bodily intestines given their location; but a longer, closer look reveals a bouquet of flowers or leafy plants covering the figure’s genitals. Plant matter visually sits in place of what is colloquially referred to as one’s “bush.”
The combination of photographic elements and Thomas’s own digital and material interventions is used throughout the rest of the composition to suspend the figure in a setting that simultaneously refers to the sexualized context of the original black and white photograph and a colorful non-place created through partial pixelization and the collagic assemblage of painted planes of patterns and textures joint by rhinestone-covered contour lines. By outlining this detail in rhinestones while obscuring the image itself, Thomas makes it clear that she is aware of the photograph’s original intentions and aims to undermine them.
By reappropriating figures from Jet, Thomas reminds the viewer of the expectations historically assigned to women and subsequently asserts the dominance of the depicted figure by blowing them up to a massive scale and adorning them with a frenzy of textures and materials.
The photographic pieces of the figure’s body are enough to make us recognize them as a real person while the painted and embellished fragments that make up the rest of the composition do the contradictory work of pulling the viewer back out of this space and into one of Thomas’s own material creations. This takes place in the form of patches of white and lavender acrylic paint built up into a rich texture that almost mimics icing, and painted green cross-hatching that looks as if it has been sealed with varnish or resin to achieve its shiny finish. Through a mixture of photographic elements, painted planes of color and texture, technicolor rhinestone contour lines, and carefully placed digital interventions, Thomas exempts the figure from its original, male-dominated setting, and gives it new life within a context that resists both time and place.
As the title of the exhibition in which June 1977 was first shown suggests, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Thomas’ work places the central figure within a dreamscape of her own creation that goes beyond the carnal pleasure that the source photograph was meant to produce in its original viewer. The various materials used by Thomas can also be understood as tools for elevating the female subject beyond its original male-dominated context, giving further agency to the subject’s gaze upon the viewer.
The sexualized image implicates histories of objectified women in media, while Thomas’s material interventions activate the Black female gaze of the subject. Through these material strategies, Thomas removes the female form from its original “object status,” and presents a figure that is defiant and confident as opposed to belittled and objectified.
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