In one she appears grinning and waiting for a bus in a lime green scoop-neck top, clawlike acrylic nails affixed to her fingers, her hair covered with an extravagant array of white floral barrettes. In another, she’s in an elevator channeling Mary J. Blige in a blonde wig and a skintight halter-top onesie. “This is me going to one of my seminar classes in the school of art,” she says. “No one knew who I was,” her classmates included. “They didn’t recognize me. They asked for my ID.”
The self-portraits flank a portrait of Thomas’s mother from 2009. It appeared as part of “She’s Come UnDone!,” Thomas’s solo show at the Lehmann Maupin gallery for which she exhibited photographs and paintings of transgendered women. She included the image of her own mother as a stand-in for her subjects’ mothers: the women who, many of them told her, influenced “their idea of what a woman was.”
In Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, which plays on a vintage television as part of the central installation, Bush, at the end of her life, appears wan and ill, the whites of her eyes yellowed, her cheekbones jutting and brittle-seeming. In the film, Bush speaks regretfully about the time she spent addicted to drugs, her years spent in an abusive marriage, her relationship with a bad-egg boyfriend. She alludes to the period in the past when she and her daughter were estranged. Thomas has spoken in the past of how, in art school, she bridged that gap by asking her mother to model for her. Poignantly, in the film, Bush explains just how much that involvement has meant to her. “To really work along with you makes me feel like I have accomplished something,” she says.
Captured by her daughter’s lens years before she fell ill, Bush appears on the wall vibrant and authoritative. She sits, composed and ladylike, on a sofa upholstered in Marimekko-ish fabric. She wears a drapey knit sweater, red fishnets, dangly earrings, sensible kitten heels. Her expression—lips pursed, eyes just a touch squinted—is knowing and imperious. “What I respond to most in this photo is how she’s seated,” Thomas says. “She’s just really fixed in a position. My mother was 6-foot-1, but in this picture she doesn’t feel like it. I love how she made herself seem shorter in height but large in stature.” Thomas giggles, girlishly. “I’m seated and I’m standing tall.”
Bush, a former fashion model, was never self-conscious about her height. She preached self-love and self-acceptance—“what you may see as a flaw is actually a great accent,” says Thomas. “She always spoke about that”—and frequently wore heels. “They weren’t eight inches or anything, but she wore a three-, four-inch heel. She wasn’t a stiletto woman. She envied stiletto women.” Thomas pauses. “She was always trying to get me into heels. I’m like, ‘I don’t need heels!’ ”