Mickalene Thomas's Elegy

Heather Corcoran

Mickalene Thomas thought her current exhibition at Lehmann Maupin would pay homage to her mother. Sadly, it became a memorial.

The exhibition, "How to Organize a Room Around a Striking Piece of Art" (through Jan. 5), was scheduled to open on Nov. 1. But then Sandy came, shutting down downtown Manhattan. And then, on Nov. 7, Thomas's mother and longtime muse passed away. The show opened with little fanfare one week later.

"To be quite honest, it was quite hard to go into the space. It seems like a memorial, for me, right now," Thomas told Interview over the phone from her studio. "That's what it feels like, it feels like a memorial. And that's what it is."

With her mother's death, the artist was afraid she would be unable to finish putting the show together; it was too overwhelming. But she went to her mother's house, and there she found many of the objects that fill the Chelsea gallery—including some of her earliest work. "Artifacts," Thomas said, from her mother's life.

Spanning two galleries, the exhibition is a personal one for Thomas, though there are very few of the rhinestone-studded paintings that she's best known for. Instead, the heart of the show is a short film, Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Lady: A Portrait of my Mother.

Walking into the 26th Street space, viewers encounter a series of oversized photographs. The woman is tall and slender, decked out in shoulder pads and gold jewelry, her neck craned ever just so; nearby she appears stronger and full bodied, fearlessly staring down the camera, like the women from Thomas's paintings. The photographs have names like Sandra: She's a Beauty Standing. A voice carries over from behind a wall, telling her life story.

On the other side, visitors are invited to sit down in a living room packed with '70s kitsch, like patterned upholstery and wood-paneled walls—physical memories from Thomas's childhood. Paintings and photos of the artist's superhero women hang on the wall. A film starts, and all of a sudden we meet the woman from the photographs. It's Thomas's mother, Sandra Bush.

It takes about 30 minutes to tell the story of Bush's life through family photos and a series of candid interviews. It's a frank story, one that involves a teenage pregnancy, an abusive husband, a descent into drug dealing and addiction, recovery, illness, and, finally, the reconciliation of a mother and a daughter. Bush's quick wit and confidence shine, even from a hospital bed.

Thomas began using her mother as a muse in 2000, while still a student. Her mother had been a model as a young woman, something the two had bonded over, and it was easier for the admittedly shy Thomas to work with someone familiar. But she was drawn to her mother, like the other women she works with, because of her difficult past.

"There's something a little uncanny about it and a little dark," Thomas said. "That's why it's pretty interesting for me when people always say, ‘Your images are very beautiful.' I say, ‘It's true, they're beautiful, but the people behind them they have a story to tell.'"


"HOW TO ORGANIZE A ROOM AROUND A STRIKING PIECE OF ART" RUNS THROUGH JANUARY 5 at LEHMANN MAUPIN, 540 W. 26TH STREET. AN OPENING RECEPTION IS PLANNED FOR DECEMBER 13.

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August 2014

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