“...And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.” - Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Viewing an exhibition situated at multiple locations may prove a daunting endeavor to the quickie gallery hopper, who is accustomed to bouncing through the white cubes of Chelsea for a warm respite from the currently chilly High Line. In fact, I found it impossible to accomplish my goal of visiting both Lehmann Maupin spaces on the opening night of Mickalene Thomas: How to Organize a Room Around A Striking Piece of Art. Star-gazing at the art world giants who turned out to congratulate an artist of Thomas’ magnitude, in what is a shining year of her career, seemed to take priority.1 If, however, you have the opportunity to spend some solid, contemplative, and deeply rewarding time with Thomas’ multi-media work in the exhibition on view at Lehmann Maupin through early January 2013, I encourage you to do just that.
Upon entering the Chrystie Street exhibition, we are greeted with four small-scale video works -- reflections on the natural world, recorded by Thomas while in residency at the Versailles Foundation Munn Artists Program in Giverny, France. Her inspiration flows masterfully into the next room, which is decorated with the large, boldly colored panels that one can associate only with the artist Mickalene Thomas. What makes these works so fresh, however, is the subject matter. In the four paintings on view, there is not a single figure to be found. Instead, Thomas focuses on recreating Monet’s gardens and home at Giverny in a fashion only she could produce. In Le Jardin d'Eau de Monet (2012), Thomas transforms the flat, wood panel into a collage of sorts, distinguishing her multi-layered planes, while surprising the viewer through her application of thick impasto juxtaposed with a flat, bright enamel, divided by her signature rhinestones. This advanced handling of space creates a three-dimensional, almost Cubist perspective, within a singular, flat surface -- something we are only reminded of when stepping back to view the work from a distance and as a whole. Thomas renders her rooms and gardens as shards of shattered glass, which she has seamlessly glued back together to recreate a cohesive space. It is easy to get happily lost in Thomas’ paintings, as each detail and distinct plane draws the viewer deeper into her world and leaves us craving more. We are placed in the position of Lewis Carroll’s iconic character, Alice, who is ever-curious about what lies on the other side of the glass into which we so eagerly look.
Mickalene Thomas, Sandra Leaning with Head Back, 2012, C-print, 30 x 37.5 inches, edition of 5, 2 AP; Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.
The artist gratifies the viewer’s longings in her brilliant usage of the 26th Street location of the gallery. A much more personalized branch of the exhibition, this gallery is dedicated to the memory of Thomas’ late mother, Sandra Bush, who passed away this year. In the first room of the gallery, a series of photographic portraits celebrate “Mama Bush”, as she is affectionately called. She is presented here as we are accustomed to seeing her in Thomas’ body of work to date. Mama Bush is ever-regal -- a strong and glowing presence as she gazes back at the gallery visitors who regard her. Walk deeper into the gallery space, and you are thrilled to find that Thomas has dissolved the barrier between viewer and art, as she invites you to enter into her living room (via perfectly crafted installation) to meet her mother by way of the artist’s first documentary film, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN.” Not only are we allowed to touch the art at 26th Street, but we are encouraged to sit with it, in it, and to be fully encompassed by the artist herself and the generations without whom she would not be. Of course, anyone familiar with Thomas’ work knows of the subject/character that is Mama Bush; but in this film, the artist gives us the opportunity to enter into her family sphere and meet the woman behind the lens, the paint, and the rhinestones.
Filmed during her final months, the Mama Bush we meet and interact with is in stark contrast to the physically powerful woman just seen in the photographs hung in the previous room. She discusses her foray into the world of modeling and how it is now difficult for her to recognize her own reflection. In this film, Thomas simultaneously smashes the psychological glass through which her mother is accustomed to seeing herself, and shatters our established perceptions of Mama Bush. The thirty-minute film concludes with the poignant words of Thomas’ mother: “To work along with you makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. My daughter, you, have made me the model of the art world... Mama Bush.” Both her mother and their bond have been immortalized through Thomas’ work, and Mama Bush does live on, as a memento mori of sorts, forcing us to question our own perceptions of art, family, the fleeting nature of beauty, and life.
Mickalene Thomas, How to Organize a Room Around a Striking Piece of Art Installation view, 540 West 26th Street; Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.
The film ends; and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to decompress in the soothing space that is Thomas’ installation. Though the room was all mine, I chose a corner seat in a comfortable (and fabulously upholstered) chair. As I collected my things and myself, I happened to look at the table to my left. Among the meticulously organized clutter of generations past, melanged with Thomas’ discerning representations of the future, sits an old photograph of a relative, along with a card that reads: “I was born to do great things.”
Mickalene Thomas: How to Organize a Room Around A Striking Piece of Art is on view at Lehmann Maupin’s 201 Chrystie Street and 540 West 26th Street locations through January 5, 2013.
1Mickalene Thomas was named Brooklyn Museum’s 2012 Artist of the Year and currently has a formidable solo show entitled, Origin of the Universe, at the Brooklyn Museum through January 2013.
(Image on top: Mickalene Thomas, Le Jardin d'Eau de Monet, 2012, Rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel, 108 x 144 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin)