Mickalene Thomas

I’ve been fascinated by Mickalene Thomas since I saw her piece at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond this spring.  I’ve seen a few of her pieces in person since then, and have found her interiors particularly interesting.  Thomas’s work in her portraits and her interiorscapes is often lush and richly materialed.

Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires

Mickalene Thomas’s Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

I have found myself increasingly compelled by the creative capacity of material culture in my own  life: drawn to textile and ceramic and the richness of interior space.  A year or two ago on one of my many visits to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s inimitable Cone Collection, it occurred to me how important surrounding himself with material culture — and particularly textiles — had been in Matisse’s work, and how resonant that feels in my own creative life.

Thomas’s work has always struck me as falling into this same lineage.  Full of the energy of material, both in her subject and her technique.

So I was delighted to see this video of Thomas’s home this week.  (And it includes a Matisse!)

For more on Mickalene Thomas and her work, I was fascinated by her reflections on interior space and her own artistic evolution in this interview.

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Kehinde Wiley

I’ve been quiet online this month.  Partly this is a result of life and bookwriting trumping blog posts.  But also, in the wake of all that is playing out on our American stage — and my home city –, I have felt less like talking than listening.

A month ago, when I was in New York, I stopped by the Brooklyn Museum to see the Kehinde Wiley exhibit.  There’s been a lot of thoughtful discussion about his monumental botanically-inflected portraits, which showcase contemporary black American men in the poses of canonical European portraiture.  The men — who Wiley met and ‘street cast’ for his portraits on American city streets — pose in the postures of Napoleon and wealthy white merchants and aristocrats.  These are positions that assert visibility and social standing and power, and in Wiley’s portraits they insist on a rewriting of black men’s invisibility in the western history conveyed by art, and a rewriting of the ways we image black men now.

Willem van Heythuysen

There is a raw power in this project.  A power to the resulting paintings, which are loaded with dynamism, and to Wiley’s process, which had him sitting down with ordinary men he’d met on the streets, pouring together through art history books and picking poses and paintings to replicate.  What was it like to be in the room with those men, choosing image-making paintings to imagine themselves in?

Ultimately, I wound up spending a good long while in a narrow little vestibule between two larger galleries, watching the projection of Wiley’s digital video piece, Smile.  In the four-pane video, we focus closely on four African-American men’s faces as they smile until they cannot smile any longer.  The experience probes the problematic ways American black men are compelled to smile — so as to seem compliant and unthreatening, as a survival technique, in the face of oppression — and the toll.  As each man in the video loses his smile, he disappears and is replaced by another smiling face.

It was intensely painful and emotional to sit with the video and the men’s wavering, strained smiles, the corners of their eyes and lips faltering with the awful muscle exertion of holding their expressions so long.  Sitting on a little bench in front of the projection, I literally held my hands on my temples to try to keep my eyes from their repeated sympathy spasms and cried.  A few feet away, in a dark corner, hung Mugshot Study.  The piece originated in Wiley’s reflection that mugshots and wanted posters are among the most common forms of contemporary portraiture used to depict African-American men.  His exploration of this particular form of portraiture feels poignant and devastating.  The young man here is so young, and so vulnerable.

Like so many others, I have been reading a lot about policing and prisons and the deaf persistence of the confederate flag and the fraught language of terrorism and race, and trying to listen intently and with great intention to the stories of all our citizens and to our president (again).  This listening has been an important part of my practice of patriotism.

Last week I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and saw Iago’s Mirror by American artist Fred Wilson.  The black-backed Venetian mirror is a reflection on the racial dimensions at work in Shakespeare’s Othello.  But the piece draws into question not just the duplicitous Iago.  For it is the viewer who is reflected in this black glass.  We, too, are implicated in these questions of race.  And because of that, we’re called upon to listen.

Iago's Mirror

Seeing Wiley’s work felt like a way to open up this listening.

Fortunately, for those of you who live in Seattle or Fort Worth or  Richmond, Wiley’s retrospective exhibit will be coming through your cities in the next year, and so you’ll be able to invite this work into your listening, too.

Museum Picks, VMFA

{Five favorites (+ one)}

On our trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Mom and I decided to pick two galleries to visit.  We opted for South Asian and 21st Century.

South Asian art always has such an appeal for me.  I love the architecture and sculpture and textiles.  VMFA has some particularly exceptional pieces, including an entire 19th century pavilion and silk Gujarat textiles so finely embroidered you are reduced to abject admiration of each tiny, precise, vibrant stitch.

Mom read Arabian Nights in its entirety one summer when she was a kid and has had an affinity for its jeweled-toned illustrations since.  So this North Indian / Mughal watercolor and ink illustration appealed to her right away.  Not unlike Scheherazade, this vina-playing yogini has completely captivated her audience.  Check out all those fine lines and darts of bold color.

One of the things I found myself thinking about as we walked through the South Asian gallery is how cross-cultural and geographically interconnected artist creation has always been.  The museum’s curatorial staff believe the illustration is a Mughal copy of a North Indian painting.  The embroidered textile was created in the worldwide embroidery center at Gujarat, which traded textiles to the European market.

After an obstacle-ridden year, Ganesha has had a lot of resonance for me lately as the remover of obstacles.  And in his correlative role as the lord of new ventures and patron of arts and letters, he feels like a good presence to hold onto during this new year of risk-taking and book-writing.  Back in November, when I was just beginning to wrap my head around this new adventure, Mom spent a weekend with me in Baltimore, and we went down to check out the Ganesha at the Walters Art Museum down the street from my apartment.  This week Mom overcame a few of her own big obstacles, so with both of us starting new ventures, this Dancing Ganesha feels fittingly celebratory.

The 21st Century gallery was a great complement to the South Asian collection: equally fabulous and, in its own way, both as spare and as ornamental.  Barry McGee bought empty liquor bottles from nearby San Francisco Mission District hobos and painted them with portraits of their owners.  This clean-lined piece carries a lot of tangled social commentary and resists being reduced into any one, simple message-based meaning.  Yet for all its interest in societal observation, the piece is also deeply human.  The portraits are expressive and startling in their empathetic reach.

Mom and I both stopped to sit for a while with Mickalene Thomas and her Interior: Two Chairs and Fireplace.  The rich pattern and ornamentation of this rhinestoned 1970s-inspired interior has put all kinds of art history into play, including all those early-Nice Matisse interiors I love.

And though we had chosen our two galleries, we couldn’t help but stop briefly in 20th Century to admire Beauford Delaney’s stunning portrait of Marian Anderson*, which is too arresting and luminous and potent not to see in person.

*(And certainly too brilliant for my phone’s camera, so I’ve borrowed this picture of it from VMFA.)

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts / Road Trip

  

With my spring VCCA residency wrapping up, my mother flew down to Richmond to join me for an impromptu mother-daughter road trip back up to the (reportedly still snow-patched) north.

We headed right for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which I’ve been dying to see, and even more so since I found out about the Chihuly glass installation commissioned for their courtyard.  The sculpture garden did not disappoint: lush and green and spacious, and full of modern pieces installed in dynamic interaction with their surrounding space.  People from Richmond had wandered in for lunch at brightly painted cafe tables scattered on the various patios and for picnics on blankets on that hearty green expanse of grass.

We headed up to Amuse for the most sumptuous lunch I’ve had at any museum restaurant (I’m still dreaming of that coq au vin and fresh-baked herbed bread).  And there’s nothing quite like enjoying an exceptional meal with an aerial view of Henry Moore and red glass-reed Chihuly.

Our favorite piece in the garden wound up being Jun Kaneko’s ceramic Untitled, Mission Clay Pittsburgh Project, which you can see in the first picture and which, along with some of Kaneko’s other work, is the largest freestanding sculpture made of clay.  The medium is so unexpected; there is an organic feel to this even form, and Kaneko evokes an expressive depth through the splashed glaze and richly patterned surface.  We were transfixed.