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Review: Mickalene Thomas at Lehmann Maupin

Though Lehmann Maupin describes Mickalene Thomas’ “How to Organize a Room Around a Striking Piece of Art,” on view in their SoHo and Chelsea locations through January 5 as one exhibition, there are stark differences between the two presentations. The SoHo exhibition includes a five-channel film and four paintings. These textural paintings have a peculiar chopped up perspective, which creates a sense of walking in and out of the bejeweled scenes. Made of rhinestones, the paintings perform a dance with the interior’s natural light emitting from the sunroof. The accompanying short film of Thomas’ recent travels in Europe provides a faint soundtrack to the paintings, with its music overflowing into the crystal filled room. The effect is a garden-like setting that would compel Monet to nod approvingly.

At the center of the Chelsea installation is Thomas’ first documentary film, “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother,” giving the exhibition a more biographical tone. As the title suggests, the film explores the life and personal history of the artist’s mother, Sandra Bush, Thomas’ long time muse who recently died from kidney disease. “We started installing the weekend before hurricane [Sandy], then stopped and continued shortly after my mother died.” Thomas personalizes the space by installing colorful, multi-patterned furniture, tables, lamps, paintings, and photographs from her mother’s actual home. Viewers are encouraged to browse a photo album that includes tender moments of Thomas as a child, proud moments of her graduating from Pratt and Yale University, smiling faces of her mother, and Thomas with friends in her happiest moments. “I thought those moments were really important to display.  It showed who [my mother] was and how she navigated through my world in her own way.  It really established her relationship with me, not just as my mother, but as my muse.”

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