Isn’t it funny how art that is supposed to make you feel beautiful is often really really ugly?
I’m thirsty for art that validates bodies—fat bodies, queer bodies, bodies of differing ability, bodies of color, bodies of all genders. Unfortunately, lots of art that purports to do this ends up being patronizing and schmaltzy, or—even worse—attached to an insidious commercial message. It seems that for every brilliant piece like Hana Malia and Glenn Marla’s My Wife’s Ass, there is a “Beautiful" by a Christina Aguilera; for every genius like Mark Aguhar there is an ad campaign cloaked as a social movement.
In this cultural climate, which leaves me pining for work that is simultaneously empowering and….well, good, Mickalene Thomas’ first solo show Origin of the Universe was a revelation. Thomas’ show at the Brooklyn Museum included photography, installations, artifacts, and video pieces, but her large-scale painting/collages shined brightest. Literally. They were covered in huge clusters of rhinestones that sparkled and winked as you moved around the gallery.
Thomas’ work draws heavily from poses and tropes found in classical Western paintings that she re-appropriates through a lens of feminist Black Power. Her huge paintings, whose physical largeness speaks to the cultural space Black women are so often denied, take elements that are often dismissed as ugly—rhinestones, wood paneling, clashing patterns, 70’s decor, Black femininity—and demands that we see them as beautiful. The ease with which she assembles these inspirations into pieces infused with such power, reverence, and harmony is cause enough for celebration. But Thomas takes it to a whole new level by creating backgrounds that are deliberately broken into fragments. The effect, which reads as large-scale collage, reveals the deliberateness of her construction of beauty. We too, then, are invited to construct our own ideas of what is beautiful. Notice how hokey that last sentence reads? Like I said, it’s hard to find work that is both good and empowering.
The show struck me as particularly urgent in the context of my viewership as a White gay man. The relationship between White gay male culture and Black femininity is a complicated one. While many of my White gay brethren worship at the proverbial temples of Black female icons, there is a thick streak of derision and appropriation that often bubbles beneath the surface of that admiration. I don’t doubt the sincerity of many White fags’ professed love of Black womanhood, but the fact that Black women themselves are often absent from the spaces where this “admiration” takes place effectively renders them as abstract objects in our own construction of gay identity (see also: our collective obsession with Paris is Burning and Vogue culture).
To walk into Origin of the Universe was to step into a temple that honored and reified Black femininity. Literally constructed by a Black woman, for a Black woman, Thomas’ exhibit was a physical testament to the Black woman as subject rather than object. It was an experience that was as precious as it was rare. It should happen more often.
Walking into Mikalene Thomas’ gallery was a refreshing step into a space of Black female subjectivity. It’s an experience that, sadly, is not immediately available to New Yorkers any longer since her solo show closed on Sunday. But I have a feeling that we’ll all have a chance to bask in Thomas’ beauty again for years to come.