3.15 / Review

From Santa Monica: Origin of the Universe

By crystal am nelson May 17, 2012

Since her 2006 debut at Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Mickalene Thomas has become an artist as much known for her preoccupation with nineteenth-century French painters as for her love of color, texture, black women, and rhinestones. Although her canny use of the artificial gem is perhaps the most frequently commented-upon aspect of her work, Thomas’s art also offers a complex and layered examination of the history of visual representation of the black female body by both white and black artists. Thomas’s work puts a twist on compositional traditions and techniques from French Modernists and Orientalist painters, particularly that of the odalisque. She populates scenes in which white women were once central figures with black women who appear to have stepped out of a ’70s blaxsploitation film.1 By referencing problematic source material from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Thomas underscores the difficulty in challenging racial and gender stereotypes, particularly in regard to black female sexuality.

For Origin of the Universe, her first major museum survey, Thomas introduces a new suite of paintings that suggests a shift in focus from the black female figure to the environments and landscapes they occupy. More Dwell or Architectural Digest than vintage Ebony or Jet in their styling, these (mostly) interior spaces do not appear to be lived in and lack the sensual and rich animal, floral, and geometric prints with which Thomas usually fills her paintings. The landscapes, by contrast, are dreamier. Although they are painted in Thomas’s signature collage-like style—with swaths of paint and rhinestone-embellished fragments—there is no other clear connection between the landscapes and the other works on view.

Four of the remaining paintings are bust portraits of two women, Din and Qusuquzah, one of whom is also the subject of the exhibition’s lone photograph, Qusuquzah Standing Sideways (2012). The portraits of Din and Qusuquzah show a tremendous amount of restraint on the artist’s part. The women’s clothing and the floral backdrop are much more muted in tone than Thomas’s usual style; rather than using rhinestones to create depth and intensity throughout, the paintings accent the women’s makeup and jewelry. Although these paintings lack the dimensionality found in similar earlier portraits such as Portrait of a Lovely Six Foota #2 (2007), they are no less absorbing, especially in the sense that the prim portraits of Din and Qusuquzah are a striking contrast to Origin of the Universe 1 and Origin of the Universe 2 (both 2012), Thomas’s interpretations of Gustave Courbet’s painting L’Origine du monde (1866).

Mickalene Thomas. Interior: Blue Couch with Green Owl, 2012; rhinestones, acrylic oil, and enamel on wood panel; 108 x 84 x 2 in. Collection of Michael Hoeh, New York. Courtesy of the Artist, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, and Susanne Vieltmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio.
Mickalene Thomas. Origin of the Universe 1, 2012; rhinestones, acrylic oil, and enamel on wood panel; 60 x 48 in. Collection of the Hudgins Family, New York. Courtesy of the Artist, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, and Susanne Vieltmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio.

Origin 1 features the torso of a dark-skinned woman with dark-brown rhinestones for pubic hair, whereas Origin 2 depicts a white woman with brunette pubic hair; in both the figures are framed similarly to Courbet’s model. Although Thomas uses rhinestones in her usual fashion here, both of her subjects’ inner labia and clitorises lack the fleshy pink anatomical realism that made Courbet’s original so scandalous at the time, though the anatomy is more pronounced and natural-looking in Origin 2. What Thomas’s side-by-side reinterpretations emphasize are the ways in which scientific discourse has historically fetishized black female genitalia, resulting in such truly obscene acts as the preservation and one-hundred-and-sixty-year display of the genitals of Saartjie Baartman (before 1790–1815), better known as the Hottentot Venus.2 Yet, at the same time, through these multiple versions of Courbet’s painting, Thomas is not afraid to point out her fixation on her own sex, its uses for pleasure, and most importantly her desire to share it with the public, an especially taboo act for an African-American artist.

The same can be said for Thomas’s most ambitious and perhaps most successful painting in the show, Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires (2012). Based on and named after Courbet’s 1866 painting Le Sommeil, Sleep depicts two women lying in an ambiguously post-coital embrace in a hybrid interior landscape that is unrecognizable as any specific location. Although one cannot with certainty claim that the two women are lesbians, the painting’s homoerotic overtones evoke some of Thomas’s earlier works, particularly her 2007 paintings of wrestling and brawling women.

Although the work in Origin of the Universe is beautiful and well executed, it is not Thomas’s strongest showing. The relationship between the portraits of fantastical landscapes, hyper-stylized rooms, and the portraits of women is unclear, though she makes an attempt to bring them all together in the large and lush Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires. Regardless, Thomas’s deliberate but finely crafted engagement with the Modernist modes of painting, particularly in Sleep, proves that she’s well aware of the conceptual ramifications of not only her subject matter but also the forms she uses to explore it. Her reinterpretation of Courbet and ongoing appropriation of his contemporaries, who either relegated black women to the side of their white mistresses or erased them altogether from their canvases, generates questions about the privilege of looking. In painting subjects that look back at those who behold them—in some cases with obvious desire—Thomas challenges the assumption that racial and sexual objectification negates personal agency. Her women are bad mama jamas and they ask viewers to recognize them as such without reservation or guilt.3 Thomas suggests that this “reckless eyeballing” is necessary to confront the contradictions seemingly inherent to sexual representations of the black female nude.4

 

Origin of the World is on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through August 19, 2012.

Notes

  1. Ironically, for a genre that largely depicts its white odalisques being waited on by dark-skinned maids, the term itself comes from odalik, the Turkish term for a female slave or chambermaid.
  2. For more information on Baartman and her cruel fate, see “Exhibiting ‘Others’ in the West,” http://english.emory.edu/Bahri/Exhibition.html
  3. Carl Carlton, “She’s a Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked),” 1981, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABTLdTsGZIM.
  4.  Coined during the Jim Crow era (1876–1965), reckless eyeballing was the act of black men returning the gaze of a white person. Legally prohibited and a punishable offence, the penalties ranged from imprisonment to execution, especially if the “victim” was a white female. The most notorious case of reckless eyeballing is that of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who was tortured and murdered for allegedly recklessly eyeballing Carol Bryant in 1955.

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