Monthly Archives: June 2012

Los Angeles

The Origin of the Universe

Mickalene Thomas, Origin of the Universe 2, 2012, Rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel, 60 x 48 inches, Collection of the Hudgins Family, New York, NY, Courtesy of the Artist, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects © Mickalene Thomas, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Photo: Christopher Burke Studio

We are all of us self-inaccessible and can, for example, touch parts of one another in ways that we could not even dream of touching our own bodies.

–David Foster Wallace, Backbone

Currently on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is Mickalene Thomas’s show Origin of the Universe.  The most talked about piece, and the namesake of the show, is Thomas’s appropriation of Gustave Courbet’s LOrigin du Monde—an explicit cropped composition focused on a woman’s spread thighs and vagina. Thomas used herself as the model for the image, pushing her identity as a black gay woman up against the history of Western oil painting. I like the piece from an intellectual stand point, but found it less confrontational or personal than I expected. It was Origin 2 (shown above) that  grabbed my attention.

In a traditional self-portrait an artist is generally painting their face from a photo or a mirror. It is an image that they have seen probably everyday for their entire life. They are intimately aware of its flaws and gestures, and of the emotions hidden behind. In creating a portrait of someone else, the artist uses their own self as a reference, and the resulting painting is a result of the artist’s subjective view of the sitter, inevitably refracted through the lens of their own image and ideas of self-hood. But with a portrait aimed between the legs the rules of engagement are slightly different. Most women don’t spend much of their life looking at their own genitals. Partially this is because as a culture, we are incredibly uncomfortable with the vagina, as demonstrated by the recent ridiculousness over Senator Lisa Brown’s use of the word when discussing an abortion bill. But also, it is not that practical to investigate. We can be intimately familiar with the body of someone else in a way that we simply can’t  know ourselves, and as a gay woman I suspect that this holds particularly true for Thomas and her vagina. Whether the model for Origin 2 is Thomas’s lover (as the security guard informed me) or a friend, the case remains that she paints (and bedazzles) this woman with bold tenderness and sensual fascination, making a more personal feeling piece than the work that is explicitly a self-portrait. Maybe it is the distance from her own vulnerability or maybe it was the choice to move away from Courbet’s original composition, either way it allowed her to relax and reveal herself.

Thomas also quoted Le Sommeil, Courbet’s image of two sleeping women. In Thomas’s version, Sleep : Deux Femmes Noires, the two women unselfconsciously embrace in a forested landscape that also pays homage to Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbeanother problematic though beautiful painting, in which the woman is inexplicably naked while her male companions are fully clothed. Where in the 19th century white women were presented as submissive sensual objects and black women were simply invisible, Thomas presents a vision of two suggestively post-coital black women, celebrated and displayed but not pandering to any particular outside viewer or standards of beauty. This was the strongest piece of the show, bringing together the fractured vibrant landscapes, confident portraits and unabashed sexuality of the various other pieces. I could stand in awe of it for hours.

The show is up until August 19th, when it will move to the Brooklyn Museum.

Studio Visits

Gold Leafing the Dream: Studio Visits with Claire Baker & Carmen Argote

claire composite

Stepping inside an artist’s studio, like going to a really well-curated retrospective, is an opportunity to get inside an artist’s head and connect the dots between their various finished pieces. I love the process of asking a few starting questions, and then listening as the artist gradually leads you through the paths of his or her interior landscape. Sometimes, if I get lucky and ask about the right piece in the right way, I find myself talking to someone who is sharing not only the quirky or obsessive thoughts that drive their art making, but also revealing some of their most heartfelt convictions and emotions.

There are critics who claim not to care what the artist says about their own work, but I disagree with this stance. It’s not that I think talking to the artist is necessary to have an experience with a piece–presumably the necessary ideas are present within the artwork itself—but a conversation with the artist can expand my own understanding so that I am no longer interpreting a piece from within the limits of my own experience. Through this process I can learn something new—about the world, about myself—rather than simply having my existing opinions reflected back to me. I was lucky enough to have two such elucidating studio visits recently with artists Claire Baker and Carmen Argote.

Claire Baker, There Is No Such Thing As Purity, 2011

Claire Baker, There Is No Such Thing As Purity, 2011

Certainly I would have appreciated Claire Baker’s paintings had I stumbled upon them in a gallery, but getting a glimpse into the evolution of her approach and the waterfall of cascading debris that she uses for sketches, helped me see them with more clarity and depth. Last year Baker spent some time in China, and the calligraphic influence is clear in her work. In classical Chinese paintings, the way the clouds intersect with a mountain can make the mountain look weightless. This desire to shift the perception of scale and mass is clear in the quality of line and motion in Baker’s paintings.  At one point in our conversation she raised the question: “What would it mean to learn to jump over your own shadow?” The idea of acknowledging and navigating your personal darkness, made a lot of sense when standing in front of Baker’s moments of tightly controlled chaos.

While Baker’s studio was focused around a single body of work, Carmen Argote’s was bursting with projects in various stages of development and completion.  Among the menagerie of materials and approaches, a through-line of interests emerged: the relationship between physical structures and the emotional residues that haunt their periphery; ways to make tangible forces visible; a deep fascination with recent history grounded in an attraction to contemporary materials and detritus.

Crouched in the back corner, behind a small army of intriguing Giovanni Anselmo inspired sculptures and an array of experiments with chicken wire and magnets, stood a half-way erected canopy–the kind seen at every swap meet, flea market and craft fare in LA–that Argote had completely gold leafed. It looked a little bit like a prop for a Sci-Fi B movie (a giant mechanical insect or flimsy alien aircraft) or a flouncy 80s prom dress caught on a fence.

Carmen Argote's 10'x10', 2012

Carmen Argote’s 10’x10′, 2012

The canopy is a modern equivalent of sticking your flag in the ground—a way to stake your claim at a piece of economic territory. Like the elusive golden ring that the kids jump for in Catcher in the Rye, the golden canopy in its semi-impotent state hovers between hope and defeat, the American dream and the American economic disaster. It seems a particularly fitting metaphor for the emerging artist’s life: a constant cycle of elation and deflation, professional hope and monetary struggle. The gold sparkle is seductive, and it is not until you get up really close that you notice the gold leaf flaking off. But at that point your face is bathed in a  warm golden light, far too pleasant to be abandoned.

Argote’s next project will explore the history of Selig zoo, an amusement park/zoo, founded with movie industry money, that never quite found its identity. I look forward to seeing how Argote uses this relatively unknown, but quintessentially L.A., slice of history to re-frame our present.