Friday, January 11, 2013

Mickalene Thomas—Origin of the Universe

Sleep Deux Femmes Noires
How do you even begin to look at the work of Mickalene Thomas, on view in a show titled Origin of the Universe, at Brooklyn Museum through January 20th? (I also caught a show of hers at Lehman Maupin, now closed.)

There are many layers to her paintings. Here's how my mind processes them.

1. Sparkles! She uses rhinestones and cut glass beading lavishly, lending kitsch to the kitsch in addition to the eye-catching, shiny embellishments.

2. Strong women of African heritage. She frequently depicts her mother, in addition to a regular rotation of models. They strike often confrontational poses, gazing straight ahead, or sometimes lying in tortured, arranged poses, porn-style, or like odalisques (and therein questioning the difference) which leads to...

3. Modern masters' influences. Manet, Monet, Matisse, Cezanne, Bearden. Thomas recently had a residency in Giverny, France. She quotes compositions and genres by these artists, such as....

4. Landscapes or interiors. They're not literal, but you get a sense of a Matisse interior, or Monet's highly artificial natural world.

5. Color and pattern. Part of the kitsch equation. Upholstery, wall treatments, carpeting, furniture, are all covered with an unimaginable mix of bright colors and geometric or animal print patterning.

6. Interior design. Thomas refereneces a decorating guide from the 1970s, in all its wood panelled, avocado-hued glory. Another layer in the kitsch millefeuille. There is also a neat series of interiors showing her handstitched, crazy-quilt upholstery, outfitted with cultural ephemera to further embroider Thomas' 'scapes.

7. Abstract composition. So you have patterned and colored "tiles" broken apart like ice on a pond, only the surrounding water is bright orange. Shards of imagery, shards of pattern or color, all floating and cohering or battling visually, bound together by rhinestone lines.

8. Texture. Thomas collages matte imagery with glossy painted shapes, sometimes crumpling the finish to give a plasticity to an object. If everything in one composition were black, it would still be a fascinating picture.

9. Presentation. She rounds the corners of her pieces, which more evoke the width and density of big, cheap doors than stretched canvases. Sometimes she places them on easel-like structures, giving them a friendly, salon feel. She places photos of her models behind a stack of angled gold frames, which could be read as societal context or stereotyping.

Thomas created a mural for Barclays Center and recently had dual shows at Lehman Maupin Gallery's two New York spaces. And though her work may have great commercial potential, it is strongly rooted in the history of art.

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