Arts & Culture

Tell Me What You’re Thinking

An Art Review

by Leonid Meichfeld

You walk into a stark white room. Paintings and photographs of masterfully crafted women line the walls; a granite figure bends over to the left of the room, so poised as she adjusts the drapery over her naked body. They’re invisible.
You’ll lock eyes with her, I promise you. The almost life sized photo portrait demands attention. Vibrant and busy fabric patterns take up most of the space as to frame her dark skin, and large hair. She lays in an odalisque fashion, but her face doesn’t convey any sort of passivity that is usually associated with such a pose. This expression is very purposeful, and seeks to empower the model. Mickalene Thomas’s “Tell Me What You’re Thinking” is a strong commentary on the objectification of women in art, and specially the representation of women of color.

When looking at this in the museum, I was surprised to hear (admittedly, I was eavesdropping) two viewers comment, “It’s so busy, isn’t it?” as if this were some fault the photograph had. To me, that’s where the mastery of the composition lies. Its vibrancy carries through the painting, the variety of animal and floral patterns create a chaotic unity. Thinking about this comment I imagine what this photo would look like tame, and I just get bored. Not to say it doesn’t have other intriguing elements that make this a strong composition, it just wouldn’t pack the punch it does.

Near the bottom of the photo there’s a whole lotta’ cheetah print, each individual splotch creates an appealing cutout as they’re layered on top of each other. The subdued light yellows and browns with black of these prints transitions to a bold flower print with the same color palette. There’s an interesting break in this consistent warm block of yellow funky print – a painting of a woman stand ing in plants glares at the viewer in the background. I feel like I want her to be an afterthought in the overall composition, and she is. But she has a lot of impact all the same, she needs to be there. There’s something to be said when you suddenly notice a second pair of eyes looking at you with intensity. Even with this break in pattern, and added oomph, she remains true to the colors I’ve described around her. Together the flowers, animal print, and woman all create this pieced together block of yellow warmth. I love that.

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MICKALENE THOMAS – Tell Me What You’re Thinking – 2016 – Chromogenic Print

Then the focal point of the photo, the woman lying on this yellow funky bar of fabric, is wearing a bold floral dress. It has this interesting “conversation” with the flower pattern below. It acknowledges that, yes, there’s this harmony with having that in common, but there’s no other sort of conformity to it. It’s abruptly black (which creates a lovely zone of negative space), and has complementary red and green feeding off each other to be very loud. But because of the texture of the dress (it of course being made of fabric) it still blends with the textiles around enough to allow me to focus on the woman’s bare skin. Her face especially stands out. While there’s a physiological effect which make eyes something we’re immediately drawn to, the main emphasis is by contrast. Her Afro acts as a circle of negative space around her. It’s a big jump in value (a nod to the negative space of her dress) that frames her face to make it more vibrant. To digress a
bit, I think it’s wonderful how it echoes the round shapes of the cheetah print.

I’m telling you, go see this photo. It’s at the Bowdoin Art Museum in Brunswick (it’s free to the public might I add). The picture of it in this paper does not do it justice. Hell, you might even disagree with me, but you really need to look at it in person to truly make your decision. And if you’re still not convinced, Bowdoin’s bound to have something else you’ll like.

Categories: Arts & Culture

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