The first thing that hits you when you look at a painting by Mickalene Thomas is the detail. Tiny pieces of sequins dance with thick globules of paint in a rhythm that can only be described as intoxicating. The longtime Brooklyn-based artist has a vision all her own, and she isn't afraid of expressing this fearless, fierce vision of womanhood in her new show, Origin Of The Universe, on now at the Brooklyn Museum through January 20th, 2013.
Comprised mainly of paintings from 2010 and up, the show is a vivacious, bold statement that beautifully complements the Brooklyn Museum's populist programming. Combining enamel, acrylics and rhinestones, Thomas fearlessly confronts modern ideas around sexual identity and black female beauty while reinterpreting European art history. The show's title comes from the infamous
1866 Courbet painting L’Origine du monde; here, Thomas reclaims the graphic imagery by using herself and her partner as models for her own interpretation
of the work, creating a powerful statement on race, gender, and power.
As Roberta Smith noted in her review in The New York Times
, "The unabashed visual richness of these works attests to the power of the decorative while extending the tenets of Conceptual identity art into an unusually full-bodied form of painting."
Along with the scintillating images of strong women are poetic landscapes that combine portraiture, photography, and collage; these works seamlessly integrate the artist's own 1970s upbringing, glammy blaxploitation films, and both African-American as well as European art history. The equal prominence given to femininity and nature in the show highlights the curators' understanding of the strong connection between the two in Thomas' work; equal parts wild child of nature and urban sophisticate, the subjects of the works, whether human or not, are equally imbued with a vivacious sense of joy, energy, and ferocious life force.
Whether she's calling the spirits of Édouard Manet or Henri Matisse (whose work greatly informs much of hers) or playing interviewer to her mother, Thomas' towering artistry is always front and center. It challenges you even as it seduces. As well as riffing on Courbet's work, Thomas take on Manet’s famous
1863 painting Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe; tellingly, the gaze of the male artist is subverted and recontextualized, giving the viewer an entirely different experience of the works' subjects, the artist, her craft, and indeed, perceptions around Western art, gender, and race.
Deux Femmes Noir serves as a reminder of the heightened reality (or perhaps more fantastical) element of Thomas' canon, with its ridged surfaces and rough texture; in no way is the painting meant to be a recreation from life, but instead, is meant to signify a state of being of the artist, and by extension, its viewers. We come to occupy a heightened reality that elevates and illuminates both epic and intimate histories and personal details through Thomas' deliberate, careful embellishments. The artist herself has stated she was influenced by David Hockney while doing this work, further highlighting the eclecticism of her creative influences.
Earning her Bachelor's degree in painting from the Pratt Institute in 2000, Thomas later earned her Master's at Yale, and had her gallery debut in Chicago in 2006; her New York one followed three years later. A Brooklyn resident for seventeen years now, she recently contributed a large-scale work to the newly-opened Barclays Center
depicting various Brooklyn landmarks.
But Thomas isn't solely a painter. Along with paintings, Origin Of The Universe features four installations that re-create the photography sets Thomas uses within her studio; essentially elaborately-decorated living rooms (complete with sofas, televisions, armchairs and occasion tables), they reflect Thomas' 70s childhood as well as her visually charged sensibility. Brooklyn Museum curator Eugenie Tsai (who helped organize the exhibit) recently told the Wall Street Journal's Kimberly Chou
that "(t)he past constantly informs Thomas' present, whether it's distant art history, or a more close, personal history. She makes a range of references in her work. [It] questions the traditional cannon of Western art history... (b)ut I also appreciate how her work, with the rhinestones and the references to popular culture, appeals to a very broad audience. Someone who knows nothing about art can walk in and appreciate her work for the pure visual beauty and spectacle."
Part of that spectacle involves family. Thomas' past comes to the fore with the many works revolving around her mother and muse,
Sandra (Mama) Bush, the subject of many of works in the exhibit, and whose fierce, bald honesty in the exhibit's documentary betrays a heartbreaking sense of vulnerability and fragility, something Thomas explores with grace and sensitivity.
There's also plenty to ponder in Thomas' energetic use of collage throughout her work; initially chaotic, the pieces, upon closer inspection, seem to fit together like a winsome puzzle in Thomas' skilled hands, the colored, patterned shards rendering, once more, a heightened sort of reality that transcends the traditionally staid trappings of her chosen medium; here the influence of artist Romare Bearden comes to the fore, particularly his own inspired collage work
With Origin Of The Universe, not only does Thomas redefine painting with this show, she moves it into another language unto itself. Brooklyn should be proud. Mickalene Thomas is home.