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 L‘Origin 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’herbe, another 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.