Mickalene Thomas is a master of the ode, of placing ephemera of her muse (her recently deceased mother, Sandra Bush) on actual pedestals in galleries and museums where the black female body and experience is not typically upheld and celebrated. The bronzing of Ms. Bush’s house shoes and an old sweater, the display of her bra, jeans, earrings and bare body make Thomas’ mother into the supermodel she always hoped to be. Not in a morbid way, this is a celebration of what Zora Neale Hurston might say is a “will to adorn” working women who have style for days, despite economics.
One’s mother as spectacle and site for the construction of art is nostalgic. The pedestals act as altars, not only to call upon Ms. Bush but to conjure the mother of the viewer. There is an intimacy in viewing a mother’s garments. A delicate beauty and longing occurs for the body of Thomas’ mother and your own. The altar is an invocation of the body not there, as well an invitation to your own memories.
“I was born to do great things” becomes a burial site and living monument. Thomas reconstructs her mother’s actual living room in the Kavi Gupta gallery space. Multicolor carpet and patterns on the couches and armchairs are vibrant and clashing, a pastiche Thomas and her mother have become known for. The room is a re-creation of 1970s soul. Red lights in the lamps, wooden panels and decorative wallpaper, color and cushions where the viewer can have a seat. “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” an HBO film Thomas made of her dying mother in the hospital and at home, is projected, playing on loop. The room is dim and comfortable and is its own altar and supplication. Thomas is eulogizing her mother and in doing so praises the lives of black women and black mothers and mothers who are not black. “I was born to do great things” is a generational double entendre: the great things of a mother and a daughter, of black women in the present and those who have transitioned to the past and who remain here, still. (Kevin Coval)
Through November 15 at Kavi Gupta, 835 West Washington.