Santa Monica, CA—The Santa Monica Museum of Art presents Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe, the first major solo museum exhibition for the New York-based multi-media artist. Best known for her elaborate paintings of African American women against the backdrop of décor recalled from her childhood, Thomas has created an all-new suite of works that examine aspects of landscape painting. She introduces a new model of trans-generational female empowerment as she explores interior and exterior environments in relation to the female figure. The exhibition opens at SMMoA on April 14, 2012 and continues through August 25, 2012. It will then travel to the Brooklyn Museum for display from September 28, 2012 to January 20, 2013.
Thomas is best known for her bold enamel 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 reenvisioned 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 works in a variety of sizes, shapes, and media. 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 photographs, she will create an installation in SMMoA’s Project Room 1, 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. She earned a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree from Pratt Institute and a Master’s of Fine Arts from Yale University. She 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.
Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe is organized by the Santa Monica Museum of Art; SMMoA Deputy Director Lisa Melandri is the exhibition curator. The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of free, engaging public programs and a full-color, illustrated catalog published by SMMoA and distributed by DAP. The publication includes an interview with the artist by Melandri; an essay that contextualizes Thomas’s work by writer/curator Sarah Lewis, Professor at Yale University School of Art; and an in-depth investigation of Thomas' 19th century and modernist influences by scholar Denise Murrell, a 2011 PhD Dissertation Fellow at Reid Hall of Columbia University in Paris.
Generous support for this exhibition has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Additional support has also been provided by Janine and Lyndon Barrois.