The self is a slippery thing—an entity built on slippery grounds and shaped by slippery forces. The French psychotherapist Jacques Lacan perhaps put it best that “the self” is both something we build as well as imagine; it is located between the fictions of the ego and the fictions of the unconscious, where unity between the two remains impossible but deeply necessary for one’s development. The divide is a drama manufactured by us and for us, built of fragmented impulses and drives that work to negotiate a final assimilation that will (crucially) never take place. It was Lacan’s notion of “the self,” and our desire to organize it, that remained with me as I meandered through the Newcomb Art Museum’s current exhibition of the work of Mickalene Thomas, Waiting on a Prime-Time Star. Thomas’s striking images of women posing for, gazing at, and confronting the viewer raises a question: How does the image of the self that we construct for ourselves compare to the one others create for us? Together, what kind of collage does this make?
This question is not small, and its profundity is rendered expansively in Thomas’s large-scale paintings of women, which are arguably her most recognizable work. Whether her subject is a friend, relative, or stranger, Thomas finds a way to articulate their power and beauty by engaging the history of female representation. Though the work in the exhibition utilizes various genres and media, the strength of much of Thomas’s work is clearly rooted in a deep investment in the history of painting, its long tradition of masters and masterpieces, and the generations of audiences that have accepted its tropes and icons. Thomas’s work both depends on this rich context and smartly subverts it by claiming its own space within a tradition that has largely excluded, demeaned, and caricatured persons of color and women.
Thomas’s intervention into the grand narrative of the lounging nude and the seduction of the female body—a lineage that runs from Titian to Manet to Matisse—is staged most performatively in Shinique: Now I Know (2015). With her back to the viewer and head swiveled toward us, Shinique’s gaze plucks at the heart of a visual tradition dependent upon looking at women, but which has rarely provided the female sitter with such control over the space outside the picture plane. Under Thomas, the archetype is called up only to be destroyed—the enticing seduction of the female figure only recapitulates the strength of the sitter’s presence. These women aren’t being looked at, they are looking at you. Not only does Thomas upset the power dynamics at work between passive sitter and active viewer, which structure the history of art, she makes a case for upsetting a gendered dynamic beyond the space of the picture.
Thomas’s intention to articulate the constructed, “slippery” potential of female selfhood is put to work through her employment of different materials, techniques, and juxtapositions of different visual genres within her paintings and collages. The encounter of both painting and video—the stilled self and the self in motion—are moments of great strength in the exhibition, and acknowledge the artifice and consequence that exists at the heart of all representation. Oscillating between two separate works, Thomas’s painted homage to Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech of Black female empowerment, “Ain’t I a Woman,” and a religious altarpiece, Diptych presents the sexy, Black female body sculpted out of flat planes of primary colors in two dimensions on the left (a gesture reminiscent of the painterly techniques of her idols Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden), and in a televised two dimensions on the right. Thomas is asking us to look at these two images together; the back and forth required in creating unity out of a presented duality forces a consideration of the slippery self, as well as Truth’s speech: Isn’t it a woman? Is it not? What is a woman? Who decides? The subject or the surveyor? What, or where, is woman when her likeness is rendered flat on a wall or screen? When is the self most recognizable? Authentic? Staged? Embodied?
The true highlight of the exhibition is Thomas’s re-creation of a flashy, glamorous domestic space filled with nostalgic 1970s interior design fads and references. By creating a space where her figures might live, relax, lounge, and cavort, Thomas points to the ways in which identity is created and constructed by things, spaces, and forces outside of our own physical bodies. In a true celebration of the self as a constellation of “stuff”—visible and invisible to the eye—Thomas poses an emancipatory narrative of female Blackness that is transposed and transformed across times, spaces, and persons. Within this space, the voice of Thomas’s mother echoes from the video interview, “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman” (2012). Her voice undulates across the staged installation—a reminder that history is inalienable from the present, as is the projected self inalienable from the imagined. This notion of playful bifurcation—or the understanding that the self is a fractured and multifarious process and product of becoming, scattered across both the artist’s representation and the sitter’s own performance of it—calls attention to the hybrid foundations that define Black femaleness and beauty in today’s world.
Mickalene Thomas: Waiting on a Prime-Time Star will be on view at the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University through April 9, 2017.
 The impossible unification of the self is a great theme of Jacques Lacan’s work. See “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. by Jacques Sheridan, (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2004), 3–9. The reference to the French psychotherapist is not out of bounds, as Mickalene Thomas has discussed the impact of Lacan’s writing on “the mirror stage” as being tremendously important to her work in interviews and other publications.