Mickalene Thomas and the Seduction of Beauty

Mickalene Thomas, "Sleep: Deux femmes noires" (2012), rhinestone, acrylic paint, and oil enamel on wood panel, 108 x 240 x 2 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Mickalene Thomas, “Sleep: Deux femmes noires” (2012), rhinestone, acrylic paint, and oil enamel on wood panel, 108 x 240 x 2 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Mickalene Thomas’s current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum is a visual marvel. Bright colors, shimmering rhinestones, chaotic patterns, and bold-faced women abound. And not separately, mind you — Thomas has a proclivity for mashing them all up into exquisitely rendered wholes that take the cut-and-paste aesthetic to a nearly explosive endpoint. If there’s one thing her work doesn’t lack, it’s energy.

Origin of the Universe, as the show is titled, is not a retrospective but rather a two-year survey, offering an overview of Thomas’s output since 2010. It explores her process and gives viewers a chance to see her working across media; though the paintings are perhaps her most recognizable work, followed by her photographs, the exhibition also includes collages, hand-built sets, and a short documentary film that Thomas made about her mother, Sandra Bush.

Installation view, "Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe" at the Brooklyn Museum, with "Origin of the Universe 1" (2012) on right
Installation view, “Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe” at the Brooklyn Museum, with “Origin of the Universe 1” (2012) on right

The title of the show is a play on Courbet, whose famous (and infamous) “L’Origin du Monde” (1866) (The Origin of the World) is an explicitly close-up, realist view of a vagina, painted in 1866. Thomas has updated Courbet twofold, with a pair of rhinestone-drizzled vaginal portraits that bookend the first three rooms of the exhibition. In one, she has painted her own vagina; in the other, her partner’s — a means of rewriting art history by placing herself, a black woman, front and center, a place that black women have not often occupied in the narrative.

Detail of a landscape painting (click to enlarge)
Detail of a landscape painting (click to enlarge)

This is, in large part, Thomas’s way: Origin of the Universe also includes reimaginings of Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” (1862–63) and another Courbet, “Le Sommeil” (1866) (Sleep), as well as other riffs on Modern Masters. A new series, Interiors and Landscapes (whose works depict, as expected, interiors and landscapes) was inspired by a residency she did at Giverny, Monet’s former home and garden in France. In all of these works, she brings a riotous, often retro-inspired but unquestionably contemporary aesthetic to bear on the ghosts of art history — a move that, while not quite novel, feels welcome and often refreshing.

What’s most interesting and new about the Brooklyn Museum is the chance to see the collages that Thomas makes — intimate and surprisingly modest exercises that she turns into loud, oversized paintings — and her three-dimensional sets, faux living rooms for which the governing aesthetic seems to be: clash until it doesn’t clash anymore. Perhaps even more than the rest of Thomas’s work, the sets (which, disappointingly, visitors are not allowed to walk or sit in) feel like throwbacks — wood paneling! — but they are distinctly her own creations. She has quite wonderfully described them as “recreating those experiences I have no memory of.”

Two of Thomas's sets
Two of Thomas’s sets

At the Brooklyn Museum, Thomas’s film plays in small side room across from the sets. It’s the endpoint to the show — either a meaningful conclusion or a buried gem, depending on how you look at it. The movie is titled “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman” after the writing on a cake that Sandra had at her 50th birthday party, and it is a poignant and searching, if visually simple, piece — essentially a short documentary centered around an interview that Thomas conducted with her mother about her life.

Mickalene Thomas, "Lounding, Standing, Looking" (2003), featuring the artist's mother, Sandra Bush (click to enlarge)
Mickalene Thomas, “Lounding, Standing, Looking” (2003), featuring the artist’s mother, Sandra Bush (click to enlarge)

When I first saw it at the museum, I wasn’t quite sure how “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman” fit into the show; it seemed perhaps a too personal addition to an intensely work-focused survey. Two weeks ago, however, the film became increasingly retroactively charged when I wandered into Thomas’s recently closed exhibition at Lehmann Maupin and saw the words “In loving memory of Sandra Bush ‘Mama Bush’ 1951–2012” inscribed on the wall. Sandra was alive when the Brooklyn Museum show opened, in September. (The film doesn’t shy away from her health problems, brought on in part by past drug use.) I thought back to the museum and a wall just outside the movie room, where a photo triptych hangs — portraits of Bush, shot by Thomas. They are magnetic pictures of an exuberant, youthful woman who nearly became a model, and who says in the film, of that missed direction, “It would’ve been everything I wanted.” It was then that I realized: it’s no wonder Thomas is preoccupied with beauty.

That preoccupation is both a and arguably the driving force of Thomas’s art, as well as one that threatens to overtake it. In many of her paintings and photographs, the women stare out at the viewer, their pressing gazes forcing us to reckon with them, putting us on the spot. But in others, some combination of the loud colors, the fractured, chaotic designs, and the prone position of the subjects conspires to recommit the women to beautiful passivity. It may not be enough anymore to simply place two women of color in an updated version of Courbet — or rather, it may be that Thomas has tipped the balance between attractive object and meaningful conceptual exercise.

A part of one of Thomas's sets, with two of her interior paintings in the background
A part of one of Thomas’s sets, with two of her interior paintings in the background

Her newest works, the Interiors and Landscapes, suffer from this especially: they are all dazzling surface, with little discernible substance. They are, I think, a bit too in love with their own beauty, like the princess who gets lost gazing in the mirror at her reflection. Thomas’s staged, three-dimensional sets strike social and political notes with the strategic placement of such books as To Be Young, Gifted, and Black and Roots; they also feel like vivid, complete creations of her mind. The interior and landscape paintings, meanwhile, seem devoid of feeling or direction, and it’s hard to figure out what they’re meant to convey or be, besides vehicles for her increasingly well-known aesthetic. It’s encouraging to see her moving into new territory rather doing portraits and art history updates again and again, but where she’s ended up feels a bit lacking in passion and depth.

Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through January 20.

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