June 2012: Mickalene Thomas @ Santa Monica Museum of Art

Mickalene Thomas, Origin of the Universe # 1, 2012. Rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel, 60" x 48" in.
Courtesy of the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe
Santa Monica Museum of Art
April 14 - August 19, 2012

Now on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in Bergamot Station, the first solo major museum exhibition for Mickalene Thomas is a series of extravagant, lavish, large-scale paintings rich with texture, color and social resonance. Through them, the New York based artist venerates the contemporary African American female in the context of various dazzling and vibrant landscapes and interior settings recalled from her childhood.

Creating her own distinctive synthesis of portraiture, landscape, still life and figure painting, Thomas dips into myriad influences from art history and popular culture in these 15 freshly visualized multi-media works. With a palette echoing Matisse, she re-contextualizes the classical female figure, paying homage to the traditionally overlooked African American female as subject. Thomas employs a multi-layered facture process, beginning with a photograph, which is then translated into collage, and finally reinterpreted in paint. Leveraging the dramatic visual impact, the artist strategically embellishes her paintings with rhinestones, adding dimension, definition, shading and glitter.

Mickalene Thomas, Interior, Two Chairs and Fireplace, 2012. Rhinestones, acrylic, oil and enamel on wood panel, 96 " x  72 " x 2" in.
Courtesy of the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Architectural and hyper-modern, Interior Blue Couch with Green Owl (2012) is defined by raw angles, and vivid blocks of color suggesting a sub-tropical setting. Thomas uses line and overlapping rectangles, outlined and patterned in rhinestones. Where the interior room ends, there is a continued sense of elongated perspective as the background vanishes far away outside the window. Masterfully, she has crafted the feeling of an airy space the viewer may wish to enter.

Smaller and quieter, Interior, Striped Foyer (2012) is an inviting vignette. Thomas captures a view of a hallway with striped wallpaper – an interior also reminiscent of Matisse – complete with decorative details like the two little sconces on the wall. In another vein, the artist’s portraits convey character with bravura. Her female subjects gaze outwards, not in a confrontational way, but with a confident demeanor, as in, Qusuquzah, Une Très Belle Negresse, #3, (2012). The subject is portrayed wearing a hat tilted at an angle, earrings dangling, red dress displaying a low cleavage. She pops out of the background of flowery yellow wallpaper. As points of embarkation for the painting, Origin of the Universe 1, (2012) Thomas references Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas,) and Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde.

Mickalene Thomas, Qusuquzah, Une Très Belle Negresse #3, 2012. Rhinestones, acrylic, oil and enamel on wood panel, 96 x 80 x 2 inches. 
Courtesy of the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Manipulating conventional notions of beauty, feminine identity, race and sexuality, the painting depicts a reclining nude black female torso, vulva in the foreground, breasts splayed across the pillows in the background, reviving the pose from Duchamp’s last major work and Courbet’s similarly frank depiction of the female anatomy. The two works from which Thomas gathers inspiration were already provocative in their day, but she pushes the concept even further, and tops it off with black rhinestones, which delineate and emphasize key anatomical parts.

While her landscapes and interiors have a sense of three-dimensionalality, with defined foreground, middle ground, background, and planes of overlapping color, her portraits are somewhat flat, with the focus on the face and accouterments of the figure. In the largest painting in this show, Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires, (2012) Thomas juxtaposes figure upon landscape, portraying two reclining female figures entwined in the middle ground, surrounded by the intricate patterns on the upholstery, planes of lush foliage, and segments of blue sky.

Mickalene Thomas earned her BFA from the Pratt Institute and her MFA from Yale University. Her work is included in several major American museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She is represented locally by Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Origin of the Universe was curated by Lisa Melandri of SMMoA. The exhibit travels next to the Brooklyn Museum, where it will be on view from September 27, 2012 to January 20, 2013.

Mickalene Thomas, Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires, 2012
. Rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel, 108" x 240" x 2" in.
Courtesy of the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Megan Abrahams

Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings. 

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