Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mickalene Thomas at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Les Trois Femmes Noires
There's something really exciting about discovering an artist whose work you enjoy.  Last year on one of my visits to New York, I tagged along with my friend Wendi while she did her "homework" for the Art of Viewing Art class that she takes at the New School.   Each week the students are given a list of exhibits at galleries and museums that will be the topic of the following week's lecture.  A lot of the art I've seen on our gallery visits has been contemporary in the extreme and makes "modern" art by Rothko or Rauschenberg seem accessible.  Occasionally, though, I've seen things that I've really enjoyed, like an exhibit at the Lehmann Maupin gallery that included the work of Mickalene Thomas.   I loved Thomas' reinvention of Manet's Luncheon on the Grass with three bold fully clothed African American women taking the place of the odd trio of a naked woman and two fully dressed men.  So when Wendi told me that Thomas' first solo exhibit was on at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a jaunt to Brooklyn was added to my "to do" list for my trip.  (As an aside, at Lehmann Maupin I saw a study for this work that was probably 16" x 20".   The version at the Brooklyn Museum is huge-- 9' x 12'--and even more visually exciting.)  
Detail from Tamika sur une Chaise Lounge avec Monet
I'm happy to report that I liked Thomas' work on this viewing even more than when I saw it last year.   Her paintings grab your attention, not only because of their size but because of her interesting subjects and materials.  Her work is part painting, part collage with her use of acrylic, enamel, and rhinestones.  There's a distinctively funky 1970s feel to her work despite the fact that Thomas was just a kid then.  She says that she is "reinventing those experiences of which I have no memories."

Thomas' work is inspired by a variety of sources, some of which are quite unexpected.  There was a copy of one of the 18 volumes of The Practical Encyclopedia of Good Decorating and Home Improvement (circa 1971) that she liberally borrows from/lampoons in her work.   The second gallery in the exhibit contains rooms that Thomas created with input from her models that often provide the backdrop for her paintings.  The furniture apparently comes from IKEA and Thomas then finds retro fabrics and the pieces are reupholstered to create the vintage feel.  (It's easier to imagine Thomas scouring flea markets on the Lower East Side for this furniture than finding these fabrics at any self-respecting store.)  The books on the coffee table in this room are all references to the struggle of African-Americans:  The Biography of Malcolm X, Roots, and A Raisin in the Sun.

Photography is an important aspect of Thomas' process, and there was an entire wall of photographic studies of the models in different poses and locations that would eventually be incorporated into her work.  A number of Thomas' paintings contain women in the classic Odalisque pose made famous by Ingres.  I don't think it's a coincidence that the most popular definition of "odalisque" comes from the Turkish word meaning slave or concubine.  Again, Thomas turns the traditional on its head by appropriating the image and inserting her powerful black women into the scene.  

I enjoyed the exhibit immensely, and I was not alone.  When we entered the exhibit, a conservative looking older woman dressed in a brown tweed suit was on her cell phone with a friend.  "I'm at the Mickalene Thomas exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, " I overheard her say.  "You have to come see it.  This is exactly the way I want to paint!"   I'm sure that Thomas would join me in saying "More power to you, sister!"  

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