This painting, an example of Thomas’s recent depictions of deliberately styled, uninhabited interiors, highlights the embellishment of the room, including the furnishings and the play among patterned fabrics, textured surfaces, and tonal contrasts. Such interiors reflect the influence of The Practical Encyclopedia of Good Decorating and Home Improvement, an eighteen-volume set published in 1970, which Thomas came across in a thrift shop and whose illustrations provided source material for some of her collages and paintings.
Thomas transforms Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting Le Sommeil (Sleep), an interior scene of two nude Caucasian women. Restaging the piece in nature, she depicts two African American women reclining on richly patterned textiles. The contrast between their black and yellow skin tones echoes that between the dark- and fair-haired subjects in Courbet’s painting, while Thomas’s deliberate use of French in her title simultaneously pays tribute to a lineage of Western art history and revises that tradition. As is characteristic of Thomas’s recent work, the surface of the painting is fragmented into a number of angular pieces, drawing attention to the painting as an artful construction rather than a seamless representation of the world around us. Thomas has commented that the panel is based on landscapes by the contemporary British artist David Hockney, suggesting the eclectic nature of her sources of inspiration.
Thomas shot the assertively posed Qusuquzah against a wood-paneled wall in what is probably a corner of her studio. Wearing a blue hat and red dress, Qusuquzah also appears in several other portraits included in the exhibition. In painted portraits, Thomas transforms her photographic source through the addition of rhinestones, the subtle alteration of facial expression, and the contrasts between matte and enamel surfaces.
Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe
September 28, 2012–January 20, 2013
Brooklyn artist Mickalene Thomas is best known for her elaborate, collage-inspired paintings, embellished with rhinestones, enamel, and colorful acrylics. Her depictions of African American women explore a spectrum of black female beauty and sexual identity while constructing images of femininity and power. Origin of the Universe, Thomas’s first solo museum exhibition, highlights recent bodies of work that examine interior and exterior environments in relation to the female figure. Their settings are often inspired by her 1970s childhood.
Thomas’s production is informed by the classical genres of portraiture, landscape, still life, and the female nude. She combines careful borrowings from historical painting with contemporary popular culture, taking cues from such artists as Romare Bearden, Gustave Courbet, David Hockney, Édouard Manet, and Henri Matisse. In combining traditional genres with African American female subjects, Thomas makes a case for opening up the conventional parameters of art history and culture. Among the pieces on view are contemporary riffs on Courbet’s Origin of the World and Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Seventy-five of the ninety featured works were added for the Brooklyn presentation. An entrance-gallery mural, a film about Thomas’s mother, and installations of furnished domestic interiors were created specifically for this show.
Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe was organized by the Santa Monica Museum of Art and Lisa Melandri, former Deputy Director for Exhibitions and Programs. The Brooklyn presentation is organized by Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.