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Mickalene Thomas, up close and very personal

The Brooklyn artist bares body and soul in her provocative and wide-ranging exhibit at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

April 20, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas works to finish the installation of her new show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in Bergamot Station on April 04, 2012.
New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas works to finish the installation… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Mickalene Thomas is to contemporary painting what Daft Punk is to music: acclaimed as one of the more original remix artists working today.

The 41-year-old Brooklyn artist has borrowed images and poses from established masters such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse and Romare Bearden in her paintings.

But her most recent work owes a particularly explicit debt to Gustave Courbet, the 19th-century French realist who famously painted a graphic (some say pornographic) close-up of a woman's spread legs and vagina in 1866 and called it "The Origin of the World."

Feminist art historians have since responded to the powerful image by researching its ownership history and trying to identify the woman behind the headless torso, believed to be Joanna Hiffernan, a lover of American painter James Whistler. But Thomas has taken control of the image in a more sensual and personal way. She has inserted herself in place of the model, photographing and then painting herself in the same explicit — and now vulnerable — pose.

"I'm not trying to be controversial," she said this month while the painting was being installed at the Santa Monica Museum of Art as part of a larger show called "Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe."

"If I wanted to be controversial, I would have used photographs. But I'm not interested in being so literal and direct. Paintings give you more room for illusion and fantasy, more room to discover things."

She said she started thinking seriously about Courbet after seeing his 2008 survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She found herself going to his "Origin" painting, "struck by its beauty and the power of the cropped composition."

As for her decision to use her own body in the painting, which could be read as a cheeky way of asserting her own power as an artist and sexuality as a gay, black woman, she said it also offered a way of playing with the idea of portraiture.

"Why not use my own body? I wanted to put myself in this position as the sitter and also the artist, this mirroring sort of relationship," she said. She also painted a version in which her partner, artist Carmen McLeod, holds the splayed-legs pose as well.

The first attempt, which Thomas rejected as a work in its own right ("I didn't like the palette"), has become the centerpiece of a room-sized installation now in the Santa Monica museum that can be viewed only through a peephole, a nod to Marcel Duchamp's controversial "Étant Donnés" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The other two works — one of herself and one of McLeod — hang in the exhibition alongside lush green landscapes, detailed home interiors and the subgenre that Thomas is best known for: portraits of fashionable black women with big hair, even bigger attitude and a 1970s vibe.

All works in the show are dated 2012 and have not been shown at the artist's galleries in L.A., New York or Chicago, where the Rhona Hoffman gallery was the first to give her a solo show in 2006. The idea for this new show grew out of Thomas' visit to the Santa Monica museum to give a talk in 2009.

It was a breakout year for Thomas, in which she received feature treatment by some art magazines, had her first show at Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York and was asked by the Museum of Modern Art to do a new painting for the window of its restaurant on West 53rd Street. She remade Manet's 1863 masterpiece "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe," replacing the pastoral picnic scene of two white men and their naked female companion with three mod-looking African American women.

When she first met the team at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the idea was to do some sort of a survey, but Thomas remembers "cringing, thinking my work is still growing."

Instead, they decided on a new body of work. Museum director Elsa Longhauser said it's a risk she has taken before — an "exciting risk" that reflects their confidence in the artist.

For Thomas, the risk carried performance anxiety. For the most ambitious pieces, she wondered: "What if I couldn't pull it all together?" But, she said, "I always want to challenge myself and the tools I bring to the work."

For the viewer, the biggest challenge might be finding connections between the types of works — from portraits to landscapes — (presented here as one series.

One thread that Thomas identifies is the notion of beauty and beautification, as the pictures remind us that we are artists of our own lives who are continually remaking our appearances and immediate surroundings. Thomas credits her residency last summer in Giverny, France — the home of Monet that also served as a stage set for several of his paintings — with bringing this idea into focus.

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