You are here

Mary Thomas

Director of Programs, U.S. Latinx Art Forum
Visual Culture in Southern California
Research Interests: 

My dissertation, Enacted Sites: Art and the Visualization of Spatial Justice in Los Angeles, 1966-2014, examines artist responses to the configuration of urban space in Los Angeles by civic authorities and corporate ownership.

For decades, art historical scholarship about Los Angeles has explored how artists engage the city’s distinctive urban landscape. Much of this work, however, has privileged artists situated within a network of galleries and art institutions that represent a fraction of the artist communities housed within the city. My dissertation draws upon this foundation of work in order to expand the geographic scope of Los Angeles art history. Specifically, this dissertation considers how black and Mexican American artists in South Los Angeles developed aesthetic practices grounded in improvisation in order to respond to social and political conditions that are manifested within the built environment. By examining artworks that respond to the deleterious effects of housing segregation, freeway construction, gentrification, and anti-immigrant legislation, I argue that improvisatory aesthetic practices provided artists with a set of tools for enacting egalitarian visions of urban space within sites historically marked by inequality.

The first half of the dissertation argues that artists influenced by jazz improvisation re-envisioned the landscape of South Los Angeles in the decades following the 1965 Watts uprising. The second half of the dissertation expands on the notion of improvisation as a form of visual expression through an examination of works by Mexican-American artists who integrated conceptual art practice with elements of urban visual culture. By drawing upon social practices that transform urban space on a human scale, such as the collection of detritus, the formation of desire paths, the production of graffiti, and the creation of vernacular urban forms, I contend that the artworks I examine suggest an alternative to monumental scale and subsequent erasure of social, economic, and ethnic difference imposed by the logics of urban planning. By analyzing how artists such as Noah Purifoy, Judson Powell, Maren Hassinger, Daniel J. Martinez, and Mario Ybarra Jr. engage with forms that are localized, spontaneous, and responsive to their environments, this dissertation offers a framework for understanding how improvisatory aesthetic practice can help enact spatial justice within the urban landscape. 

Selected Publications: 

Manuscripts in Preparation

  •  “Retracing the Border: Bridging Personal Geography and Migration in Pasoportall,Archives of American Art Journal. Expected in 2018.
  •  “Beyond the Frame: Performance, Evasive Visuality, and Spectacles of Violence.” Journal article. Expected in 2017.

Digital Projects


  •  “Beyond Bars and Broken Wings: A Review of @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.” (Event Review). American Quarterly  Vol. 68, No.1 (March 2016): 137-147.
  • “Cultural Production and Urban Latinidad: Retelling Urban History and Reconfiguring the Future of Cities.” (Book Review). American Quarterly Vol. 61, No.1 (March 2015): 231-240.

Other Publications

Selected Presentations: 
  • Session organizer and presenter. “U.S. Latinx Art Forum: Chican@ Art History: Interdisciplinary Foundations and New Directions. College Art Association Annual Conference. Los Angeles, CA, 2018.
  • Session organizer and presenter. “ASA Visual Culture Caucus: Envisioning Improvisation: Struggles for Emancipation at the Nexus of the Sonic and the Visual.” American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL, 2017.
  • “Re-Situating the Century Freeway: Community Resistance and the Visual Politics of Vacancy.” American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Denver, Colorado, 2016.
  • “Complex Mobilities: Billboard Art, Migration, and Latina/o Urban Visual Culture.” College Art Association Annual Conference, Washington D.C, 2016.
  • “Public Uses: Reconfiguring Race, Space, and Visuality in Los Angeles.” No Cruising:  Mobile Identities in Los Angeles, Urban Humanities Research Studio, University of California, Berkeley, April 2014.
  • “Hiking in the City: Examining Disruptive Performances of Tourist Identities in Sites of Distracted Consumption in Los Angeles.”  Touring Consumption International Conference, Karlshochschule International University, Karlsruhe, Germany, October 2013. 
  •  “Extending the Embodied City: Finding East L.A. in Asco’s Asshole Mural.”  Art Historians of  Southern California Annual Symposium, Orange, CA, October 2012. 
  • Panelist, “Performance Photographs from State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970.”Sesnon Gallery, University of California, Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA, April 2012.
Honors and Awards: 
  • Mellon Mays Dissertation Completion Fellowship, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation-Social Science Research Council, 2016.
  • Graduate Studies Enhancement Grant, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, 2012-2015.
  • Pre-Doctoral Research Development Grant, Mellon Mays Graduate Initiatives-Social Sciences Research Council, 2015.
  • Wallis-Annenberg Research Grant, University of Southern California, 2014.
  • Predoctoral Fellowship for Historians of American Art to Study Abroad, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, 2014.
  • Summer Dissertation Fellowship, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2014. 
  • Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows Travel and Research Grant, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, April 2014.
  • Dean’s Excellence Award, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2013.
  • Karlshochschule Mobilities Grant, Karlshochschule International University, 2013.
  • Arts Dean Graduate Student Travel Award, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2012, 2013, 2014. 
  • Regents' Fellowship, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2011-12.
  • Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, Cornell University, 2009-2010. 
Education and Training: 
Ph.D. in Visual Studies, UC Santa Cruz
B.A. Cornell University, History of Art, summa cum laude