For the past few months, I’ve been on the host committee for an event at the Art Institute of Chicago with Mickalene Thomas, which happened last Friday. On Thursday, Thomas generously gave her time to my student group Black at SAIC for a roundtable discussion, and we generated a rewarding dialogue with students that continued to buzz around school. Her work’s relationship to art history (that of male modernist painters such as Manet and Courbet) and to her personal background (her models are black women such as her mother, her friends and herself) is incredibly vital to understanding her work, which brought up the subject of the power of context (physical, historical, social) in art.
I’m compelled to define a historical context for my own work because I have no control over the viewers’ interpretation of the work and often the physical context in which it’s shown. For me, showing work in art school (the context of a place) where many of my colleagues haven’t given much consideration to racial identity and the representation of the black body (the context of a history), I sometimes struggle with whether or not to show certain work at all. This isn’t something that I think will every be properly resolved anywhere I go, no matter the background/interests of the viewers, so this is an area ripe for conversation that I want to explore further in my work.
What struck me the most about the two events (the student luncheon and the artist talk) is that we ran over time at the student event by almost a half hour due to the fruitful discussion, whereas the museum talk only one person asked a question during the Q&A portion. I found that to be an interesting display of the power of context as well, as it relates to making and talking about art.