Mickalene Thomas’s dazzling new exhibition Origin of the Universe is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum. The 93 works on display have been made over the past two years and are comprehensive assembly. She engages a visual language that is vivid, immediate, and laden with context in paintings, film and collage. The work teases all the senses, infused with lush texture, smatterings of rhinestones and bright colors centered on sumptuous images of the female form and rich, nostalgic landscapes. Vibrant portrait paintings of Black women are cast in tactile and textured backdrops, some culled from the rooms and a palpable memory of a Camden, New Jersey childhood home.
A further investigation of the gallery space enhances the visitor’s understanding of how Thomas operates. Model rooms that serve as the backdrop for her lush portraits are recreated with wood paneled wall and books on display and her collage studies, works of art depicting process, are hung in another room. Tucked away in another room, the artist’s work is fleshed out in a short documentary film that Thomas has made about her muse — her mother, Mama Bush, who is the subject of many of her paintings on display.
Here, in the new film “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” is Thomas’s most accessible offering to visitors who might not be accustomed to visiting museums and interpreting paintings. Thomas profiles her mother, once a vivacious runway model, who was nudged out of her super model break by Iman, but also survived domestic violence, drug addiction and has more recently battled hepatitis. At the heart of the story is Thomas’s approach to making work and how her mother has been lifted as a participant in that process. “To work along with you make me feel like I’ve accomplished something,” Mama Bush says addressing the camera. Thomas captures her mother in various life stages, triumphant, statuesque and elegant and in more recent outtakes, with jaundiced eyes and slight, frail frame.
Thomas shows how her family’s struggles and triumphs in such a way, that as the viewer reenters the gallery the relationship with the work shifts and the paintings feel wrought and personal. They are elegant, bejeweled works depicting black beauty, but they are closely linked to the artist’s identity. Thomas is well studied and her work is conscious and reflective of her forbearers. The title of her exhibition is a play off the 17th century French painter Courbet’s “The Origin of the World,” a suggestive figurative work of a naked woman’s pelvic region that Thomas recreates in several paintings, using both black and white women as models. Thomas is meticulous in works that are homages to Courbet and Manet, but quick to add context and irony with her interpretation. Not to be limited by her own form, Thomas also meanders into the realm of landscapes in paintings such as “Interior: Blue Couch with Green Owl. ” The exhibition is a rewarding presentation of young, prolific and accomplished artist, who appear to be embarking on a deeply personal, lifelong body of work.