Thursday, October 18, 2012
Mickalene Thomas at the Brooklyn Musuem......
I’ve seen Mickalene Thomas’s work before, in bits and scraps here and there, and early on I dismissed it as gaudy- not gaudy in a sophisticated way, but rather as the not-yet-matured kitsch of grad school art girls who can’t help putting glitter and unicorns in their work. And then the work occasionally showed up in museums, and it was big- bright and clumsy, but on an ambitious scale that made me re-think things. Possibly there was more to this, possibly the curators had seen some larger body of work, and possibly that larger body had revealed other things going on. The shamelessness of the sequins and the night-club makeup of the faces just seemed like theatre- but the massive scale suggested that that theatre was not just a sorority skit, but something maybe a little more grave, and intentional.
Mickalene Thomas has a show right now at the Brooklyn Museum, and it is, in every sense of the word, splendid. The work has all the lavish colors and languid flesh of Delacroix’s harems… but these ladies ate the sultan alive, and are now lounging about not even bothering to celebrate their coup, so confident are they in their own strength and beauty. There are no apologies in this show, and no shrinking violets either; Thomas re-imagines “The Origins of the World” (already a bit of an in-your-facer) as a two-fer- one white, one brown-skinned, and both lined with sequins. As I moved through the show, I came to understand the essential generosity of Thomas- she gives us more than spectacular massive goddesses and seventies throne rooms, by revealing an unusual degree of her process and source material. It is hard to imagine how an artist could create the jigsawed color-blocking of Thomas’s enormous paintings; they seem to exist a priori, and this how-did-she-do-it element is part of how artists keep audiences enchanted, awestruck, and thumbing their wallets. But Thomas pulls back the curtain, offering a room of collaged source photos, their jagged cuts quite specifically correlating with the planes and geometries of the painted images. She paints from her collages- but of course, it seems so obvious once you know. As an artist, I was touched by this reveal, because makers of spectacle usually like to keep the man behind the curtain well hidden. But Thomas reveals, and keeps revealing, sometimes maybe even getting into TMI territory, and it is this sweet sharing of technique, and subsequently of personal content, that makes the work not just glitzy-goddessy but also really moving. The work is emotional- and because it is emotional it is impressive, generous, blow-you-out of the room good. This really came to me when I watched the video of the artist’s mother. Entering the room, my schmaltz alert was on high- (as with nostalgia, I have a very complicated push-and-pull relationship with sentiment). Thomas’s mother, eyes huge and yellow-clouded in her amazing even slightly frightening face, speaks to us about her life, and about her daughter’s childhood. The mother was a beauty- an astonishing beauty, her face all strange planes and hungry angles, and still in her old age she is hard to look away from as she describes her drug addictions, her years of dealing, and the parade of fucked-up people and circumstances that made up her daughter’s young life. But Thomas is no malingerer on family injury; her mother is repeatedly photographed, and painted, as a glamourpuss, a discoqueen, a sequin-covered sister all power and beauty and warmth and distain. As it slowly dawns on the viewer that many of these fierce sparkling painted sexpots are the artist’s mom, the kitsch falls away, and the viewer is left with a full-on, full-bodied tribute to someone very loved; her young sexy vitality returned, renewed ten-fold, as a tribute to the fading woman who is Mickalene Thomas’ Origin of the World.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Yesterday I rode my bicycle to Green-Wood Cemetery. I had been working in the studio all day, and as the hours went by the weather slowly cleared, and the world looked crisper and bluer, and finally, driven by a headache brought on by eyestrain, I took my bike- a giant old red Raleigh, lashed with yellow reflective tape- and clattered down the stairs. Perhaps I was also driven out by the feeble (but unrelenting) peep of some neighbor’s dying smoke alarm; I tried to assuage the texted irritation of the guy downstairs by telling him to think of it as the sweetly mournful chirp of a lonely parakeet. He offered to buy me a parakeet if I could make it stop. Which I could not, and so we ran into each other at the front door, each making our escape into different parts of the city, leaving the enfeebled chirping behind in the dark, musty, Victorian melancholy of our ancient building. Behind some wainscoting, some secret panel followed by a crooked stair with broken newel posts and the dangling pipes of the original gas lighting, there is probably a door to a forgotten room. Miss Haversham is in there, recently dead; nearby is an elaborate wire cage, shaped to look like a moghul palace, and the parakeet inside is slowly starving to death, letting out the occasional wistful peep in the hopes that someone will come.
Riding into the world, then, navigating the extraordinary collection of potholes that Brooklyn calls roads, first through Prospect Park (really, is everyone in the world running except me?) and then past it to Green-Wood. At the gate, I saw several things; across the street, a strange derelict pavilion, looking as though it had gotten lost on the way to Brighton, locked behind a chain link fence next to a gas station. A location scout’s dream. Cattycorner, a carefully and chicly spare bakery, which immediately proved to have fantastic cheesecake and very cheap and good fresh loaves, staffed by young women of pale mien and faintly polish accents.
Green-Wood Cemetery is fabulous and astonishing. A wonderful place for a sunset date, should you choose to flout the rules and sneak in a bottle of wine. I intend to bring Boyfriend there soon (he will want to see Basquiat’s grave). Mouldering funereal statuary, dim, winding paths covered with dead leaves, eerie mausoleums with (sadly) locked doors, and lashings of history all laid out on a complicated map provided by the really friendly guy at the gate. Also, pleasingly, a short trek up Battle Avenue leads to the highest point in Kings County. Here we find careful and informative plaques describing a crucial battle with the British, but I was paying more attention to the view. Looking between the trees, and occasionally perching on a tomb, I could see much of lower Manhattan, and of course the fat Statue of Liberty (she does not soar, actually, unless you are standing directly at her feet). It was all very pleasant, and all of the weeping angel statues and fading afternoon light cooperated very nicely for some good, if very clichéd, photographs. October, huzzah! Last weekend I bought a very very small pumpkin for $2.49 at Home Depot. I have not experienced Fall for well over a decade and I intend to go full force, walks in the dying woods, scarves, hot apple cider, spooky cemetery visits, what have you. The academic in me feels deeply ashamed of this thin surface nostalgia, and I will certainly balance it with some heavy reading (Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory came with me to the graveyard, but was not cracked). I also feel vaguely uneasy when in the boutique-heavy areas of Greenwich or Williamsburg, because the driving aesthetic of many of the fall clothing lines clearly indicates that New Yorkers spend all of their free time crouched by campfires or hewing logs. Apparently, as the stock exchange closing bell chimes, men all over are ripping off their suit jackets, Superman-style, to reveal well-worn Pendletons. A quick whistle and the trusty retriever leaps from beneath the office desk, and they are off to grow a quick beard and hit the woods. I am a sucker for this stuff, and recently acquired some scent that smells exactly like bark. Boyfriend, who is actually a woodworker, doesn’t get it at all, but he’s not much interested in perfumes so I shan’t worry.
How often do you consider parakeets in the course of your day?
Here’s the funny part though, and perhaps it speaks a little more clearly to where I really am. The smoke alarm that I wrote about at the top of this piece, the one that sounds like a dying parakeet in a cage… After wandering the Green-Wood Cemetery for some time (and enjoying a brief conversation with two Irish tourists who were completely bowled over by it all) I headed back to the gate and the very friendly security guy. The gate of Green-Wood is a massive, deliciously overwrought Gothic affair, a good sixty feet of lacy brownstone towers and turrets, and as I approached it I noted a wild sort of shrieking- a very fierce and avaricious racket that demanded notice. A group of birds was nesting in the highest turret; a disorganized mass of twigs, several feet across, was lodged in the brownstone lacework, and the residents were darting around it, shrieking and swearing and attacking each other wildly and very loudly. I stared- I had to stare, I’ve never heard songbirds make such a noise- and gradually I noticed that the birds were quite an electric green. They had escaped from some shipment or other… they were, as the really friendly guy at the gate explained to me, parakeets from Argentina who had made their nest at Green-Wood for perhaps twenty years. And yes, he agreed, they did seem angry.
Friday, May 18, 2012
Sunday, February 5, 2012
We moved to North Carolina for the semester.... I am a visiting professor here for the spring.... the following are photos that I have taken in the last month or so.