The Santa Monica Museum of Art presents Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe, the first major solo museum exhibition for this highly acclaimed multi-media artist. Best known for her elaborate paintings of African American women against the backdrop of décor recalled from her childhood, Thomas created an all-new suite of works that introduces a new model of trans-generational female empowerment as she explores interior and exterior environments in relation to the female figure.
Thomas is best known for her bold enamel, oil, and acrylic paintings adorned with rhinestones, glitter, and "bling." Her subjects seem to have stepped directly from a 1970s Blaxploitation film, yet Thomas's influences extend far beyond. Her oeuvre stems from her long study of art history and the classical genres of portraiture, landscape, and still life. Thomas's layered facture process begins with a photographic portrait that is translated into a collage, and ultimately re-envisioned as a painting. Her imagery comprises careful borrowings from art history and from contemporary popular culture.
For Origin of the Universe, Thomas examines art historical constructs of feminine identity, sexuality, beauty, and power in 15 new paintings in a variety of sizes, shapes, and media, and one photograph. Taking cues from Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) and Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World), Thomas presents the female figure as the origin of the universe, focusing on how the female body both engenders and inhabits landscape. The works on view are in communication with one another-portraits of Qusuquzah and Din gaze out at modernist interiors and plein-air landscapes, all confronted by the artist's arresting recreations of Courbet's Origin.
In nineteenth-century visual culture, black female sexuality functioned as something to be rejected or disparaged, but Thomas reconfigures these historical tropes into contemporary statements of empowerment. By casting African American women as the "heroines" of her works, she makes a profound statement regarding gender and racial identity. Thomas's dialogue with Courbet and Duchamp is a strong reclamation of history, reasserting the subjective nature of beauty. In addition to her paintings and photograph, she has created an installation in SMMoA's Project Room 2, to reinvent Étant donnés, where the "peep show" reveals the true surprise of a 70s-style paneled interior in the place of Duchamp's splayed female body.
Mickalene Thomas was born in 1971 and lives and works in New York. She earned a Bachelor's of Fine Arts degree from Pratt Institute and a Master's of Fine Arts from Yale University. Thomas has participated in residency programs at the Versailles Foundation Munn Artists Program, Giverny, France, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. Her work has been shown in group exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, The Renaissance Society, Chicago, and MoMA PS1, New York, and is included in the important collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; The Museum of Fine Arts Boston; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
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