LOS ANGELES — A gentle soundscape greets you upon entering Enlightenment, a survey of paintings and a site-specific installation by artist and art professor Matthew Thomas. Tucked within one of the galleries at the California African American Museum (CAAM), Enlightenment offers respite from the hustle and bustle of the nearby Exposition Park. It felt like I had wandered into a verdant oasis, lulled by the sounds of water by a stream and wind blowing through grass. A sense of tranquility washed over me as I took in Thomas’s geometric abstractions, soaring harmonies of color and movement presented on wood panels of various shapes. The standard white walls were replaced by red, blue, and green — each wall overcome by a different color. 

“Embracement” (2019) appears on the blue wall, an oblong portal that mixes monochrome and chakra hues into a coil of arcs, circles, squares, and lines. Subtly, the painting invites us on a journey to the source, represented by the gold auric field suspended in the center. There is no one way to reach the gold, as there are numerous paths one could take, illustrated by the lines from all directions feeding into it. Thomas’s paintings induce a trance state, where the subtle energies coursing within the natural and spiritual world take center stage. 

Born in Texas, Thomas studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles, and has been exhibiting his paintings and mixed media work since 1975. His work blends his interest in the natural sciences with his own study of Eastern religions and philosophies, especially Buddhist Tantra. One of the three main forms of Buddhism, tantra emphasizes that enlightenment can be attained through a variety of practices and experiences, from visualizations to ritualized hand gestures to meditation and yoga. Ultimately, tantra reminds us that the separate, individualized self is an illusion, one that distracts us from the sacred threads binding us all together. 

Matthew Thomas: Enlightenment at the California African American Museum

Thomas has been greatly influenced by tantra — he eventually left Los Angeles for rural Thailand in 2011 to deepen his spiritual practice. His multimedia works recast his own path to enlightenment. In “Entering the Heart” (2016), seed-like shapes float against a nugget gold background. Delicate threads weave out and through the seeds, creating iridescent patterns that evoke butterfly wings. In Sanskrit, tantra means “threads” or “woven together,” and Thomas’s lines take on a similar quality, vibrating like strings of the cosmos. Tuning into these sacred frequencies, which exist all around us, can lead to a transformative awakening. 

According to the wall text that marks the beginning of the exhibition, Thomas views his show as “a sincere effort to bring elements of art as messengers of our potential divinity.” By sharing his particular visual language, he hopes to trigger our own connection to the divine as expressed in nature and within ourselves. Thomas’s paintings require your time and focus. I found my pace slowing as I circled the gallery, eager to see familiar shapes anew. Some paintings, like “Center” (2019), which referenced the five elements through its color scheme, provoked a cellular reaction in me. Thomas’s geometric abstractions connect us to a subconscious language, one felt in the spirit rather than the logical mind. 

Matthew Thomas: Enlightenment at the California African American Museum

Enlightenment was conceived by former CAAM visual arts curator Mar Hollingsworth and organized by curator Taylor Renee Aldridge. Aldridge describes Thomas’s paintings as “visual prayers” that express a desire for oneness between humanity and nature. Embedded within Thomas’s symbols is a quiet rejection of the borders and hierarchies espoused by Western values. His paintings map out a different way of living, one based on awareness and interdependency.  

Matthew Thomas: Enlightenment continues at the California African American Museum (600 State Drive, Los Angeles) through August 7. The exhibition was curated by Mar Hollingsworth and Taylor Renee Aldridge.

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Allison Conner

Allison Conner's writing has appeared in Bitch, Full Stop, Triangle House Review, and elsewhere. She writes about movies and books at loosepleasures.substack.com