I may have had conflicting feelings about Hank Willis Thomas and "The Brand New Heavies." Yet they have plenty in common. Both stubbornly pursue African American stereotypes, often to the point of stereotyping themselves, and yet both make it hard to pin down black artists.
Left to her own devices, the curator for the "heavies" embraces stereotypes with a very different kind of determination. Most recently at the Brooklyn Museum, Mickalene Thomas just wants to strut her stuff.
Mickalene Thomas has put black women on the couch before Deana Lawson—and not just in Freudian terms. In the Studio Museum's second show of emerging artists under Thelma Golden, she gave an interior out of Romare Bearden a glitzy surface and a pornographic twist. She refuses Bearden's Cubist aspirations, unlike Kerry James Marshall, but also updates his jazz riffs for new pop-culture inflections. She is also feminizing them. That glitter comes not from any old beads but from rhinestones. And a woman on her couch loves every minute of it.
She does not lack for confidence. For her museum retrospective, even Warhol portraits lack for star power. And even the origins of Impressionism lack for sex and glitter. Like Hank Willis Thomas, she updates African American art for street fashion, and they both show off. She even makes him look modest and hardly macho. In her case, though, the new black heavy is not straight and decidedly a woman.
All of a sudden, that woman is everywhere. While curating, Thomas also had pride of place in 2009 along with such old white heavies as Tracey Emin and Marilyn Minter, in "The Glamour Project." In the back room, Brigitte Lacombe exhibited photographs of each contributor, making the artist part of the beauty myth, too. (They all looked pretty good.) At the Brooklyn Museum, on the way to Hernan Bas, another of her rhinestone and acrylics already led off contemporary art. She had gone in no time from emerging artist to contrarian to museum new acquisition to star.
If that narrative sounds like recent collecting at its worst, it continued in Chelsea the same year of "The Glamour Project" and again this year in a solo act. She multiplies her portraits, but her subjects have become more and more detached from the flatness of the collage interior. Apparently, they want to claim the razzle-dazzle as their own. Often the woman has the thrusting hips, three-quarter profile, and glance toward the sky of a pop star. Think of the notorious Obama portrait but in drag and putting on weight. Yet another wall adapts Andy Warhol head shots more closely still.
Her allegiances have shifted from Bearden to Warhol and Oprah. You can almost hear her shouting, "You go, girl." This time, the back room continues the show with video and photographs. They show her portrait sitters and the work in the making. Rather than documentary, they serve as afternoon TV. Gallery-goers must supply the live audience.
Somehow, on her way from Harlem, Thomas has ditched irony altogether along with doubts about race relations in America. "The Brand New Heavies" may shrink into a couch, stir food with a cigarette, or wake with fantasies of sex and revenge. Either way, they have to live with the scorn of others and their own nightmares. So, for that matter did Warhol or bad girls in past art. No one has yet offered Artemisia Gentileschi a spot on Oprah. Maybe if she wore rhinestones.
Has Thomas gone too far? That may sound like asking whether NASA has gone too far into space or installations use too much electricity, but NASA is facing budget cutbacks. (Come to think of it, Dan Flavin passed on incandescent bulbs long ago.) Thomas can draw on anything from the Harlem Renaissance to afternoon TV—and remind you why people find them sexy. She can mix painting, photography, collage, and glitter. She can make nudity a fashion statement or a political one.
Still, for her return two years later, in 2011, she sought something more intimate. The intimacy comes from small collages, pasted with little if any reworking. It comes from the un-self-conscious shapes of cut paper, neither polished nor jagged. It comes from large Polaroids, which combine the invention's history as an amateur's first camera with a dark luster that in a digital age recalls albumin prints more than instant photography. It comes from her sitters, including her own mother. At once confessional and improvised, she hints at the thought process behind all her work.
Then again, Thomas has always insisted on intimacy. From the viewer's perspective, it may just happen to mean forced intimacy. For her wall-sized commission in 2008 for MoMA PS1, she drew on Manet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, which forced a sexually charged history of western painting on Paris. She then added stage lighting in the background, a door right through it, and a perfectly accurate subtitle with its own dark-city history, Les Trois Femmes Noires. A larger woman, with still more glitz, was reclining last I looked along an escalator wall at the Modern. Does her latest merely bring that intimacy home, or does it reduce her to Oprah for a forthcoming arts channel?
Neither all at once, although it risks the latter with almost every painting. Hung Salon style, one can think of her collage groupings as her largest work yet. (And just try to use "the Salon" and "intimate" in the same sentence.) Its permutations suggest shifting disguises as much as revelation. Indeed, its appropriations lean to those who already quote others, like a Pietà by Balthus—already a hint at lesbian sex or female eroticism. Manet's revision of Giorgione in Renaissance Venice turns up at least four times all by itself.
They can hold a certain intimacy all the same. Sagging breasts refuse to announce a loss of beauty. Collages invent interiors as bright windows onto a personal world. Overlapping picture frames may hold pictures at four or five times the distance, or they may burrow that much deeper within. Even the Polaroids look like collage while insisting on the sitter's central place and identity. The 2011 show's very title, "More Than Everything," hints simultaneously at an escape from particulars and, as the song goes, "I love you."
The scale and media also acknowledge a major influence all along, while helping to define the differences. Bearden turned late to collage, and Thomas, who also contributed to "The Bearden Project" in Harlem, picks up the clarity of his glue and paper. Still, she prefers landscape and interiors to his street scenes, pop rhythms to his art and jazz, and sunlit color to his black and blue. One can see the show as taking stock, before whatever comes next—and as a huge relief after too many murals, too many reclining nudes, and too much gold dust. Whatever comes next, it seems to say, she will always be more brassy than confrontational. Through decorative arts and personal remembrance, Thomas at her best makes thought and desire visible.
Back in 1866, Gustave Courbet painted The Origin of the World—a woman's naked crotch spread-eagled toward the viewer. It came after several years of erotic paintings, but it still comes as a shock compared to scenes, like his Stone Breakers, that so defined a break with academic painting and prefigured modern art. Yet it obliges one to see his earthy realism and its mythic status altogether differently. Thomas appropriates them both twice over, in paint and crushed rhinestone, hardly lingering over the African American nipples just visible in her version beneath the yellowed sheets. She calls it The Origin of the Universe. If there were parallel universes for gays, blacks, and women, she would probably claim those as well.
For her 2012 retrospective, Thomas insists on the subject as her own, not to mention the eroticism and the art. Elsewhere she reworks Courbet's treatment of two nudes fondling, but as one black and one white. (She is married to a white woman, also an artist.) She also enlarges Déjeuner sur l'Herbe considerably, while turning the central trio of Edouard Manet into three women. The two versions of her crotch are downright restrained by comparison, at least in scale, although a crowded wall between rooms at the Brooklyn Museum has smaller work. Still, they and photographs seem less like studies for the large canvases than castoffs or casual asides.
She may not be an Impressionist, but she sure wants to make an impression. An initial wall-sized collage of nature photos aligns her with the world, if not the universe. Her portraits come with photos of the same female sitter and on the same scale, typically blunt and frontal—and then she reworks them in flat colors with a slight turn, as for a magazine spread. If it seems a little glib for a midcareer retrospective, almost the entirety dates from 2012 alone, with more like it at her gallery's two branches. Its main difference from her previous gallery show comes in an installation partitioned into four rooms that one cannot enter, but the point seems clear enough. Its clutter includes paperbacks by Maya Angelou and Lorraine Hansberry.
A touch of glibness, glitter, pride, and portraiture is going around these days in African American art. Kehinde Wiley or Barkley L. Hendricks gives his role models their swagger and fashion sense, while Kori Newkirk directly incorporates styling gel. The street sense of Bearden, the struggles of Jacob Lawrence, or the elusiveness of David Hammons sometimes seems far behind. Maybe even call it progress, if you dare. All the same, these artists linger over the disjunctions between flatness and depth, identity and stereotype. For Lyle Ashton Harris or Kara Walker, that can mean backs, silhouettes, and a dark history.
Thomas plainly wants none of those dark spirits, but it can leave her trapped in convention despite herself. It can also leave her reshuffling the deck and running out of ideas. Collage interiors seem particular bare of life. The same problem dogs others influenced by Andy Warhol, who too often see the sense of style, but not the violence and danger. If Damien Hirst wants to be Warhol with intimations of mortality, Thomas might be Hirst with only happy endings. No wonder she thinks of Impressionism when she thinks of art history, like a tourist shopping for posters.
Courbet or Manet did shock, long before they played dead white males to an African American woman who prefers a positive message. Manet shocks by wresting clothed and unclothed figures out of Renaissance art and into the present—and it says something that Thomas skips not just the clothed men, but also Manet's sudden shift in scale to a fourth figure, a woman, in the background. When she paints the studio in which Claude Monet once thrived, she represents paintings on the wall as empty frames. Yet the confrontation that once led Allan McCollum to display black and white rectangles in commercial frames never once interrupts her pride and pleasure. As much as anyone, Thomas can still communicate desire and intimacy. She just may have to lose confidence and to slow down.
Mickalene Thomas ran at Lehmann Maupin through May 2, 2009, following "The Glamour Project" through March 21. Thomas's next shows there ran through October 29, 2011, and January 5, 2013. "Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe" ran at The Brooklyn Museum through January 20, 2013. A related article covers Hank Willis Thomas and "The Brand New Heavies."