MICKALENE THOMAS’S COZY CORNERS
My paper considers home decoration as a topic situated within the varied terrain of vernacular material culture, design practice, and artistic representation. As a starting point, I explore the domestic interiors portrayed by Mickalene Thomas in recent paintings, collages, photographs, and installations. Thomas collects and arranges decorative furnishings in her studio and in galleries, reviving a nineteenth-century artistic practice for twenty-first century home–makeover culture. Her collecting and display, in turn, provide the starting point for the production of a prolific body of domestic imagery. Thomas’s pictures of interiors follow a recognizable template with colorful, patterned, textile-laden surfaces that frame intimately enclosed spaces and languidly posed sitters. These contemporary cozy corners suggest a cult of hyper-adorned domesticity steeped in historical motifs and ideological meanings. Yet the exaggerated eclecticism and unorthodox materials (rhinestones, wood paneling, wax-print fabrics) and the assertive presence of the black, queer women who inhabit Thomas’s interiors indicate an intention to critically reimagine old motifs for new subjectivities.
To better understand Thomas’s critical revisions of decoration and domesticity, I make comparisons to past imagery from nineteenth-century painting and photography, 1950s modernist architecture, and a 1970s decorating manual. Thomas’s appropriation of historical motifs as well as her engagement with historical practices of the studio and the gallery draw attention to persistent, often hidden ways that home décor has been used to mark out boundaries of identity and belonging. Inspired by literary scholar Susan Fraiman’s notion of “extreme domesticity”—homemaking as a radical assertion of agency from positions of marginalization—I emphasize ways that Thomas’s exuberant décor subverts conventional definitions of gender, sexuality, and race in the home.
Eric Anderson studies and teaches the history of modern design. He has written on topics including exhibitions, color theory, Sigmund Freud’s office and the mass-marketing of furniture. Articles and reviews have appeared in the journals West 86th, Centropa, Journal of Design History and Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide and in books including Design Dialogue: Jews, Culture and Viennese Modernism (Vienna, 2018), Making Home: The Arts and Crafts Movement and the Reform of Everyday Life (New Haven, 2018), Klimt und der Ringstrasse (Vienna, 2015) and Performance, Fashion, and the Modern Interior (Oxford, 2011). He has lectured recently in China, Greece and the UK and spent a semester as a Fulbright Fellow at the Sigmund Freud Museum and University of Applied Arts in Vienna.