ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE: The Monuments of Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas (American, b. 1971). Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires, 2012. Rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel. Private collection.

If the thought of forty minutes on the 2|3 spells the end of any plan to leave this insular island of the Manhattoes, you’re in good company. But take an afternoon this Saturday or Sunday and run, don’t walk, to the Brooklyn Museum. On offer: free admission all weekend long to students and staff with valid CUID—and the stirring exhibit, Mickalene Thomas’ Origin of the Universe. With its vigorous send-up of art-history traditions, fierce portraits of black femininity and black female sexuality, elaborate homages to interior decorating fads of the 1970’s, and haunting debt to the artist’s mother, Thomas’ exhibition lays ample claim to its title’s grand promise.

Thomas is known for the flare and diversity of her material—especially, perhaps, her penchant for studding rhinestones onto paintings—and here Origin does not disappoint. The exhibit presents monumental paintings, photographs several times larger than life, floor-to-ceiling mural collages, a meticulous installation of ‘70’s living room recreations, and, yes, a vajazzled portrait here and there. Thomas and her assistants have even reupholstered the museum’s benches with the same fabric patterns that appear in her artworks, sucking spectator and gallery alike into Thomas’s stylized world. The material complexity entrances and dizzies: tearing one’s eyes away from the enamel, rhinestones, and pastoral collage of Thomas’s complex Sleep: les deux femmes noires is as difficult as absorbing the artwork’s visual intricacies.

Qusuquzah Standing Sideways, 2012. Chromogenic photograph. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

Maintaining critical distance of any sort becomes a challenge throughout Thomas’s exhibit, as motifs and images presented at the beginning return in haunting permutations. In a film placed at exhibit’s end and produced just for the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit, Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, Thomas reveals the sitter depicted in several other artworks to be her own mother, Sandra Bush. The film sheds a light at turns soft and harsh on Bush’s life and relationship to Thomas, lending sharp significance to the exhibit’s other portraits of “beautiful women.”

But Thomas does invite her spectators to bring a critical eye to her work and its visceral interrogation of art-historical tradition. Like Gustave Courbet’s Origine du monde—whence the exhibit’s title via translation—Thomas’s Origin of the Universe II depicts a woman’s vagina and torso, with limbs and head shielded from view. But Thomas’s model is black, and Thomas has replaced the fluffy pubic hair of Courbet’s sitter with her own signature rhinestones. Several other works play with well-known French precedents: in her monumental Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe: les trois femmes noires, Thomas puts at centre three clothed black women, playing against Manet’s painting of near-identical title and its white sitters, one nude woman and two clothed men. The paintings jar against expectations and open up critical space for audience reflection; they invite spectators to ask why whiteness and maleness should be treated as standards from which Thomas’s portraits “deviate.”

It’s worth the visit, whether for a critical interrogation of tradition or simply, as a friend of mine remarked, to feel emotionally “full.”

-Gavin McGown, CC’13

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