Pop Theory: Mickalene Thomas and “Bodies That Matter”

Brooklyn-based multimedia artist and out lesbian Mickalene Thomas has presented audiences with an  this fall/winter. “Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe,” which runs through 20 January, features 93 pieces both new and old, in addition to a series of installations of furnished domestic interiors using her personal items and furniture that evoke the settings of her iconic paintings, as well as a short film that features her mother—Thomas’s primary muse.

Thomas’s art is iconic and is immediately recognizable even to the most amateur art-goer: the evocative sexuality, the black female sensuality, the retro ’70s glitter-glamour. “Thomas’s oeuvre,” according to the press release about the current retrospective, “investigates the body in relationship to the landscape and interior spaces through a pictorial style that reimagines past masterworks and transforms them in a modern-day idiom for the present. Her signature portraits of vibrant black women in photographs, paintings, and collages explore artifice, masking, and costuming. Her interiors draw on a range of historical periods, from the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century to the present.”

Installation View, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Walking through the exhibit, I was enthralled by Thomas’s pieces. A significant part of my enthrallment was produced not just by the rhinestone razz-ma-tazz of the artwork but also by my knowledge of Thomas as a lesbian; from my femme-ish perspective, she is a lesbian that embodies androgyny and female masculinity—very nicely, I might add. (Her wife, nota bene, is the acclaimed artist Carmen McLeod, who is due to give birth to the couple’s first child this coming summer.)

Carmen McLeod and Mickalene Thomas

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

During the same time in December that I was wandering through the retrospective, I was also teaching Audre Lorde’s Zami and “Uses of the Erotic” to my “modern lit” undergraduate classes. The juxtaposition of these works made me realize the extent to which Thomas’s art is evocative of Lorde’s “erotic”; how her art bespeaks the erotic both as a “resource” and as a spiritual conduit of passion: “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.” Lorde continues,

“When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”

The assertion of the lifeforce of women—this line captures the verve of Thomas’s work.

Thomas actually created a companion piece for the retrospective: a set piece that explicitly invokes—and critiques through the invocation of—Gustave Courbet’s infamous “Origin of the World” (1866).

Mickalene Thomas (American, b.1971), Origin of the Universe I, 2012.
Rhinestone, acrylic paint and oil enamel on wood panel, 60 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.9 cm).

Mickalene Thomas (American, b.1971), Origin of the Universe 2, 2012.
Rhinestone, acrylic paint and oil enamel on wood panel, 44 x 48 in. (111.8 x 121.9 cm).

Thomas tellingly revises the title—“Origin of the Universe” instead of just “…the World”—to suggest a greater import to woman than that given by Courbet. In the first image Thomas used herself as her model; in the second, she used her wife as her model.

Simple vajazzled vajayjays these are not; they both exude Lorde’s erotic and make a conceptual statement that functions as an art-historical critique.  More significant, in my estimation, is the extent to which these pieces made me realize the importance of the creator in the viewer’s interpretation, even basic feeling about, a work of art.

Yes, I said it. New Critics and Postmodernists be damned.

I am not making an argument in contention with “The Intentional Fallacy.” (“The error of criticizing and judging a work of literature by attempting to assess what the writer’s intention was and whether or not he has fulfilled it rather than concentrating on the work itself,” as cited from J. A. Cuddon’s A Dictionary of Literary Terms.) I am not interested in the creator’s mind, or her intention. I am not even completely interested in her identity, per se. Rather I am interested in how the creator’s body affects how I read or feel a work. (Here, how Thomas’s body, which I read as “butch,” which signals, rightly or wrongly, “lesbian” affects how I feel and understand the companion set.) If anything, my method affirms such PoMo theories as “the death of the author” by re-affirming the power of feeling and of interpretation as existing firmly in the hands of the reader/viewer.

That said, knowing how Thomas personally identifies (rather than how I identify her) supplements my understanding. In this particular instance, again, I find the “Origin of the Universe” companion piece to radiate the erotic and to be a strong critique of art history and an equally strong reappropriation of women’s bodies by women. My understanding of this piece is in part derived from my reading of her body—from my knowledge of the creator…because I sure as hell wouldn’t feel the same about this piece if I knew it was made, say, by some 90-year-old white guy from North Dakota.

The body of the artist very much impresses upon the viewer. The creator is, indiscernibly albeit perceptibly so, a part of her work.

I’ve already gotten into one heavy discussion about the extent to which a creator’s body matters in how a person interprets her creation with one of my academic friends. She is a POC (person of color) who studies Chaucer and is very much about wresting the literary past from the dead white man’s hands. I’m all for this—and I actually don’t think what I’m saying contradicts her literary theory about the power of the reader/viewer in the act of interpretation.

In a recent interview with Chloe Wyma at Blouin ArtInfo, here’s what Thomas had to say about her companion piece and its invocation of Courbet’s piece:

CW: The title of your exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Origin of the Universe,” is an allusion to Gustave Courbet’s notorious nude.

MT: I was interested in Courbet’s Origin of the World as a conceptual idea related to the female body, and I used that as a central focus for the show. For me that painting is very controversial, and it was very controversial for its time. I wanted to reclaim that pose by using my own body as the subject. I felt a little exposed, because I’m revealing a part of my body that one will never see unless they get very close to me. Putting myself in that vulnerable position allowed me to understand the positions that I put my own models and sitters in. I used to use myself a lot in my earlier works, but those felt more narcissistic. In this work, it wasn’t necessarily important for the viewer to know that it was me, the artist.

CW: And you did a second version with your wife, Carmen McLeod.

MT: Yes. It was a sort of call and response, dealing with the nature of sexuality on a different level, romanticizing the nature of relationships and intimacy—and also having this connection with a black body in relation to a white body. Beauty is so much about a particular type of construct, and I wanted to have that dichotomy be a subject to talk about.

She concludes this stream of thought by saying “[c]onceptually, paintings are like mirrors. They’re an expression from the artist: ‘This is how I view the world—I’m presenting it to you.’”

An expression from the artist. Yes. The body matters. Always.