Tête de Femme, a show of new work by artist Mickalene Thomas at Lehmann Maupin, places the exploitation and regulation of the female form at its center, exploring the female figure and visage through eight large-scale portraits. Making use of screen-printing, collage, and candy-colored swatches of fabric, Thomas creates and re-creates the elements of a face in order to deconstruct a coherence presumed and projected into measurements of personhood. Through bold geometric and material choices, Thomas approaches the question of identity as an problem to be solved through a concentrated treatment of each element, much in the same nature of Picasso’s work of the same name.
At first glance, Thomas delivers what appears to be a cursory reaction to some version of lipstick feminism, presenting the female face in a manner reminiscent of retro-fetishist, overly stylized beauty ads and . Remaining with these images, however, yields more nuance than the glitter of neon and sequins illicit. Thomas enlarges and at times overstates the actual and hypothetical standards of identity worn on a face. A continued exploration of feature and form, movement and light dominates the work, unveiling new meaning and interpretation as the viewer spends more time with the work.
Thomas reports that this series was inspired by a moment of collaboration with her makeup artist. Cutting shapes out of paper and other material, a play of faces began to unfold. Eyes, a mouth, and the suggestion of a nose are arranged on each canvas, but the slight abstractions borrowed from Picasso exist in the surprising and disruptive material used in these works. Though femininity is at the heart of this series, Thomas does not plumb the depths of the political potential of this subject by undertaking a dissection of standards of female beauty. The exhibition reads more as an exploration of the formal politics of portraiture than of the visibility of the female face.
Though all pieces but one are untitled, they are each based on a specific subject. Resemblance is an afterthought, as Thomas seeks to capture instead the energy and activity that moves across the surface of the face. The sheer size and brilliance of the portraits articulate a mission not to critique or meditate upon the broken system of visualizing women in the art world, but instead to celebrate the artificial and natural layers involved in physical identity.
Tête de Femme explores roots of identity that are fixed to a face through societal and interpersonal relationships. Beneath the flashy and stimulating effect of color and texture loaded onto the canvas, there is significant inquiry into the face as a play between individual and collective identity, social forces, and the cosmetic demands of a subject’s circulation in social and societal currents.
— A. Corrigan