Mickalene Thomas’ solo show Origin of the Universe plays with the concept of the muse by probing both art historical precedents and the artist’s personal life. The title of the exhibition comes from an infamously graphic painting by Gustave Courbet depicting a nude woman’s splayed legs and genitals. Thomas has recreated Courbet’s piece twice: once as herself, and once as her lover. As is typical of Thomas’ work, the two paintings are bejeweled with rhinestones, though they lack the vibrant color palette and cut-and-paste aesthetic of the other major paintings in this exhibition. Rather, they are focused on the female form as a wellspring from which energy, power, and life itself emanate.
This regard for women’s bodies is evident in Thomas’ multiple portraits of women, including her mother. The female nude is a classic artistic muse, which Thomas acknowledges in her deliberate nods to giants of art history such as Courbet, Manet, and Matisse. One example is her monumental Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, in which three clothed women take the place of Manet’s salacious trio of two clothed men and a nude woman, thereby subverting the original’s power balance. Though at first it might seem like a tired trope—modern “reinventions” of famous works of art—Thomas’ glossy, bedazzled paintings seduce the viewer, not just with their sumptuousness, but also with their underlying sense of sincerity and authenticity. These real, lumpy, afro’d women, surrounded by chaotic colors, textures and patterns and enmeshed in alternately smooth and broken surfaces, do not come across as idealized muses, but as actual human beings.
The installation also includes furniture and décor of particular significance to Thomas, and it is this highly personal thread in her work that brings such spark to her subjects. It all comes back to her original muse, the origin of her artistic universe: her mother. “Mama Bush” is the subject of Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: over a montage of images showing her posing in a crochet swimsuit, slinky dresses, and yes, even in the nude, Thomas’ mother declares that the moment she agreed to these portraits, “that’s when I knew I would do anything for you.” It is a compelling, intimate look at both the artist-muse relationship and the mother-daughter one. Through such moments, the show interrogates patriarchal art history while also demonstrating the visual and conceptual power of women’s inner lives.