Since he became director of the Baltimore Museum of Art three years ago, Christopher Bedford has made it clear he wants to expose visitors to diverse voices and perspectives.
One sign of his effort is an 18-month exhibit that opened this fall featuring Mickalene Thomas, a 48-year-old black queer/lesbian artist from Camden, N.J.
In “Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure,” the artist has taken over a part of the museum that isn’t typically used for exhibits, the two-story East Lobby, and made it the backdrop for her work. She also brought in more than two dozen other artists to be part of her installation.
“Mickalene’s ambitious reinstallation of the East Lobby offers a new and exciting aesthetic experience — one that engages the senses at every turn and offers the community a dynamic new space in which to connect with each other, the work and the museum,” Bedford says. “It is transformative in its own right as an astounding work of art and in its revisioning of what the museum can and should feel like to visitors.”
Whereas museum architect John Russell Pope wanted the museum to be Baltimore’s porch when he designed the original building in the 1920s, Bedford says, “I think what Mickalene Thomas has conceived is Baltimore’s living room.”
Thomas, who is often included in lists and articles focusing on the country’s leading queer artists, creates visually and conceptually layered compositions using a wide range of media. Best known for her elaborate paintings composed of acrylic, enamel and rhinestones, she also makes collages, photographs, videos and room-sized installations.
Her genre-busting work includes portraits, landscapes and interiors that blend art history and pop culture to explore themes of gender, identity, sexuality, race, beauty, equity, power, “sense of self” and the human body. She looks at femininity and womanhood against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in the U. S. and the societal upheaval of the 1970s and 1980s.
The Baltimore exhibit is one of three she has on display right now, along with others at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans and the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach. Her work can be found in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as Washington’s Smithsonian American Art Museum and many others.
A graduate of the Pratt Institute and the Yale University School of Art, now based in New York, Thomas has also become a celebrity and a mentor for young artists. She’s one of the founders of the Josie Club, a group of “black queer women.” She has been chosen to design the custom outer “wrap” for a Rolls Royce Red Phantom that Sotheby’s is auctioning to help the global charity known as (RED) raise funds to eradicate AIDS. The Los Angeles Times said she is to contemporary painting what Daft Punk is to music, “one of the more original remix artists working today.” Smithsonian Magazine called her a “Renaissance rock star.”
At the Art Basel Miami festival this month, Thomas and her partner and collaborator Racquel Chevremont were spotted all over town, from the opening of Thomas’s show at the Bass Museum to the debut of the new Rubell Museum in Allapattah, another high-profile collection that includes her work.
At the Baltimore Museum of Art, Thomas has turned the East Lobby into a community gathering spot that doubles as a showcase for her work and those of others in the exhibit. It’s one of the largest commissions she’s ever undertaken and the first major presentation of the museum’s 2020 Vision initiative, which highlights female-identifying artists
The transformation starts on the exterior, where she has installed a vinyl mural that looks like three oversized Baltimore row house facades, one in brick, one with siding and one in FormStone.
The residential theme continues inside the entrance. Every surface of the lobby has been covered with materials that evoke a domestic setting, including wallpaper, carpet, linoleum flooring, faux wood paneling and a wall of house plants.
On the second-level mezzanine, Thomas created a tableau of a living room and then juxtaposed it with a large mural of a sofa and hanging lamp. Her vivid colors, geometric patterns and textures bring to mind the aesthetics of the 1970s and 1980s, a period she sees as particularly significant for African Americans.
On the Murray J. Rymland Terrace, an area not usually accessible to the public, Thomas created a temporary “Terrace Gallery” that consists of two rooms, one fitted out like a den with a large TV and one that resembles a club basement.
These spaces are filled with works by 16 other artists. Halfway through the show, the works now on display will be replaced with works by 16 more artists. A back door in the club basement leads to a small outdoor space, complete with Astroturf, that’s reminiscent of the sort of postage stamp-sized back yards many Baltimore row houses have.
The East Lobby of the museum’s 1982 wing has typically served as a circulation space leading to the visitor information counter, the gift shop, Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen restaurant and galleries elsewhere in the building.
Thomas says she gave the lobby a more residential feel as a way of encouraging artists and visitors to make it their own space, and do what they want with it.
She said other artists might have created a single sculpture or painting in the lobby, but she wanted to do something that was “more transformative” and inviting to the community at large.
“How does one do that in this space?” she says. “It’s about really changing the façade. It’s about changing the interior. But also allowing this lobby to be open in a way, where all of my touches are along the side, on the periphery. So what you do, you open up the space architecturally and you allow this now to be performative, occupied space for the organization and community that decides to come in here to take over.
“The organization and artists that we’re working with, this gives them opportunity to use this as their platform, to use this space, this lobby, as their space,” she says. “To take ownership of that, whether it be a dance performance that could be here, whether it could be musicians … or a place of conversation. This becomes their landscape, their museum, that they can transform and use as their living room.”
Thomas says the Baltimore exhibit reflects a “black aesthetic” that’s evident in all of her work.
“Black aesthetic is black art,” she said. “Black living. Black love. Black materials. Black poetry. Black literature. Black music.”She used colors and materials that evoke the 1970s, she said, because she believes that was a key period for blacks and women, in terms of civil rights and artistic expression.
“Historically, when you think of black women owning their beauty, their hairstyles, when you think of styles and music, everything happened in the late ’60s, ’70s,” she says.
She takes a holistic approach to presenting art. At the public opening of the exhibit, she designed her own signature cocktail for the event and offered custom nail art in a pop-up nail shop. Her installation also includes costumes for museum staffers working in the lobby, created by Dominican-born fashion designer Jose Duran.
The other artists she enlisted range from some who are nationally prominent and have been widely displayed, to others who have never had work shown in a major museum before. All have ties to Baltimore and their work includes paintings, prints and drawings as well as videos. The Terrace Gallery will also be a setting for a series of events, including film screenings, artist talks, performances and workshops.
Featured artists include Derrick Adams, Zoe Charlton, Theresa Chromati, Dominiqua Eldridge, Devin Morris, Clifford Owens and D’Metrius John Rice. Videos are by Abdu Ali and Karryl Eugene; Erick Antonio Benitez, Nicoletta Darita de la Brown, Kotic Couture, Markele Cullins, Emily Eaglin, Hunter Hooligan and TT the Artist.
“A Moment’s Pleasure” is the first presentation in a new initiative called the Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker Biennial Commission, which will bring a new exhibit to the museum’s east lobby every two years.
Meyerhoff and Becker established the commission in 2018 to give contemporary artists a platform within the museum to carry out ambitious projects that engage the community, in one of the most accessible parts of the building. According to Bedford, the goal is “making the museum experience more welcoming to a broader range of visitors through exceptional art.”
Bedford curated the Thomas exhibit with Meyerhoff-Becker curatorial fellow Cynthia Hodge-Thorne and curatorial assistants Katie Cooke and Carlyn Thomas. He praises Thomas for including others.
“Many other artists would have taken a commission like this and it would have been all about them, all the time. In the case of Mickalene Thomas, it is not all about her, all the time. In fact, there is an ego-less dimension to this installation that I think is timely, laudable and quite uniquely her.”
“Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure” is a free exhibit that will run through May 2, 2021. Located at 10 Art Museum Drive in north Baltimore, the museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.