by Desi Gonzalez
Origin of the Universe
BROOKLYN MUSEUM | SEPTEMBER 28, 2012 – JANUARY 30, 2013
The exhibition Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe derives its title from Gustave Courbet’s “Origine du monde”(1866), a cheeky, erotic painting of a naked woman lying on a bed, legs spread to reveal a full-frontal view. This image serves as the source for Thomas’s “Origins of the Universe I”(2012), one of the first works seen upon entering the galleries, in which the artist has transformed the French Realist’s white subject into a black woman—more specifically, herself. To make the painting, Thomas photographed herself assuming the same position and then transferred the image onto a canvas, studding pubic hair and labial folds with dark rhinestones. By including her own body in the image, she’s converted Courbet’s crude example of female objectification into an image of feminine agency. It’s also a nod to her artistic production: She is now the origin of her universe, from which all creation springs forth.
On view at the Brooklyn Museum through January 20, 2013, the exhibition presents a body of new work—most dating from this year—by the New Jersey-born, Brooklyn-based artist. Though best known for her sumptuous, bejeweled paintings of black women, the show reveals a continually more multifaceted practice.
In her work, Thomas excavates the history of Western portraiture—with a dollop of irreverence and a generous serving of African-American culture. The lounging subjects are now replaced by black women, sometimes nude and other times adorned in couture redolent of a disco-era sensibility (after all, Thomas grew up in the ’70s). In the monumental “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: les trois femmes noires”(2010), Thomas transforms Edouard Manet’s notorious canvas (1862 – 3) into a massive rhinestone-encrusted mural. In Manet’s then-scandalizing version, two fully suited men nonchalantly picnic in a forest in the company of an unclothed woman, with another exposed female bathing in the background. In hers, Thomas has replaced the figures in the foreground with three stunning black women dressed to the nines in sundresses, hoop earrings, and full make-up. They stare at the viewer, hands on hips or propped under chins. Here, Thomas presents a much stronger woman than that well-known black female figure of Manet’s oeuvre: the servant receding into the shadows of “Olympia”(1863).
More recently, Thomas’s art historical borrowings have expanded to include other genres, including still lifes and landscapes. Measuring 9 by 12 feet, “Landscape with Camouflage” (2012), could compete with a Claude Lorrain scene in size and grandeur. Like a photo that has been ripped to shreds, the image is fragmented, reminding me of another art historical influence, now outside of the European canon: African-American collage artist Romare Bearden.
The show’s strength lies in its ability to reveal Thomas’s process, and it does so in reverse.
Oversized paintings swathe the walls of three stately galleries, with a few large photographic prints interspersed among them. Next, a set of preparatory collages hangs salon-style in a small vestibule, before we stumble upon four installations of rooms that look much like the settings of her paintings.
A nod to the excellent period rooms on the same floor of the museum, Thomas’s 1970s-inspired installations, made specifically for this iteration of the exhibition, recreate the kinds of sets she puts together in her own studio. The selection and placement of every object is paramount, from the layering of plaid and floral prints on an armchair to the Aretha Franklin record leaning against the wood-paneled wall. She pays similar attention to detail in costuming and styling her subjects, family members and friends with whom she works frequently. After photographing her subjects in the space, the artist cuts them up, adds and removes motifs, and pastes disparate images together to make the collages that will serve as studies for her paintings. One begins to recognize the repeated patterns and subjects that are scattered throughout the exhibition, inducing an occasional sense of déjà vu. It feels like we already know that woman in the blue hat, or that black-and-yellow floral wallpaper; maybe we saw them two galleries ago, or maybe they hark back to a moment in our collective cultural history.
Thomas crafts a very particular universe in this exhibition, one of glamor and fashion and strong women. But this world is a fantasy, devoid of men and confined to domestic settings. We see a woman on a chaise lounge or in a landscape, without a connection to a community outside of the painting’s borders. It’s easy to get caught in the glitz of Thomas’s world, but harder to recognize the moments of vulnerability. “Ain’t I a Woman (Sandra)”(2009), consists of a signature paint-and-rhinestone portrait paired with a two-minute video loop. In the painting, we see a woman clad in a fiery red ensemble, hands on her hip, head tilted slightly toward us in a defiant gaze. On screen, the same woman alternately stands and sits in one of Thomas’s wood-paneled sets as if waiting to be photographed; she adjusts and readjusts her hair and clothing, lacking the confidence of projected in the adjacent portrait. The work derives its title from a speech given by Sojourner Truth that demanded the inclusion of black women in the women’s rights movement, and the song that plays in the background of the video is Eartha Kitt’s “A Woman Wouldn’t Be a Woman.” Both Truth and Kitt are ardent black female figures, but their biographies point to hardship and utter injustices. Sandra, this work’s subject, is Thomas’s mother, as we find out in the final gallery of the exhibition. “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother”(2012), Thomas’s first film, premiered at the Brooklyn Museum on September 28, and tells Sandra Bush’s story, from drug addiction during her daughter’s teenage years to reconnecting when she began to sit for Thomas’s photographs. More recently, Bush has been fighting kidney disease, appearing much weakened on camera. It’s in her these works that we escape the fantasy of her stylized paintings and discover a bit of reality.
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