Friday, October 19, 2012

MICKALENE THOMAS: The Origin of the Universe

Covered in glittering rhinestones, Mickalene Thomas’ solo exhibit “Origin of the Universe” at the Brooklyn Museum demands attention.  The collection of paintings share collage-like compositions combining elements such as stylized African American female nudes, landscapes, and living room furniture and decor popular during Thomas’ childhood in the 1970’s.  The show continues into a room beyond the paintings, where a central installation echos the furnished room scenes in some of the paintings.  It is constructed so that the viewer sees one of four corners decorated as living rooms as s/he moves around the installation.   A dark niche connected to this room displays the final piece of the exhibit: a touching documentary about the life of Thomas’ mother, and her presence in her daughter’s artwork.  Throughout the artwork in the exhibit are overarching concepts of sexuality,  empowerment of African American women, and art as a constructed representation.

Many of the mural sized paintings in the exhibit depict African American women arranged in compositions that emulate well known paintings from the nineteenth century, challenging the historical portrayals of the female nude as white.   A painting referencing a work of Courbet’s, and the inspiration for the title of the exhibit, “L’Origine du Monde,” depicts the genitals and lower torso of a female nude.  Thomas transforms the meaning of the piece by depicting the subject as an African American female, and by using rhinestones as the medium.

The segmented “living room” installations in the show mimic the same home environments represented in Thomas’ paintings.  Zebra print sofas, low coffee tables, and brightly colored and patterned decor offer four different settings.  One display plays motown music,  adding to the ambiance of the era specific spaces.  Another has a mirror that reflects the image of the viewer, reflecting his/her image in the space itself.

The documentary “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman” is a moving addition.  In it, Thomas asks her mother to discuss aspects of her life including her childhood, marriage, divorce, motherhood, and drug addiction.  The viewer learns that her mother’s background in modeling, and her feelings about physical beauty and sexuality strongly impact Thomas‘ work.   Images of Thomas’ mother are often featured in Thomas’ collages and paintings.

This personal, multi-media exploration challenges traditional images of beauty in art by quoting historically well known paintings in the new context of racial identity, by celebrating female sexuality, and by incorporating images and memories from her childhood experience. 


  1. Hi Aria! Your review is well structured and draws a comprehensive picture of the overall exhibition. I like your discussion about how the artist emulates 19th century masterpieces and transforms the meaning to her own.
    One thing I didn’t quite understand when I was there (and I’d like to hear more from you) is what does the “interior spaces” have to do with the rest of the show - to reinforce the theme of women (i.e. handmade sofas - association of craftsmanship with women)? or to say something about personal experiences? I guess the “childhood memories of space” you mentioned in the end is trying to indicate the intention of it, but think it would be better to discuss more on how it fits into the overall idea of the exhibition.
    Also I feel the review would benefit from some formal analysis of the paintings, as her color palette and some techniques (i.e. the “cut and paste” effect) are pretty unique and eye-catching. It may also be helpful to give a little bit information on the artist ( the works on view only consist of her recent works or are they chosen from her entire career).

  2. Aria, overall your analysis is well done. I especially appreciate the attention you paid to the interior installations, focusing on the “deeper understanding” one derives from seeing these in conjunction with Thomas’ more well-known and embellished paintings. I do believe your phrasing and fluidity of paragraphs could be improved, however. For instance, watch your use of “also” in the first paragraph. Perhaps there is a way to synthesize the final two sentences just so they feel a bit less awkward. The transitions between paragraphs could also be a bit more fluid. As they are at the moment they seem a bit staccato. If you could simply rephrase in some areas, I believe it would improve upon your in-depth review. Great job!