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.