Chicago

View of “Mickalene Thomas,” 2014–15.

View of “Mickalene Thomas,” 2014–15.

Mickalene Thomas

Kavi Gupta Gallery | Elizabeth St

View of “Mickalene Thomas,” 2014–15.

On the heels of Mickalene Thomas’s widely screened HBO documentary Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman (2012) comes “I was born to do great things,” yet another heartfelt exhibition dedicated to Sandra Bush, Thomas’s late mother and longtime muse. In a departure from her 2012–13 show at Lehmann Maupin in New York, for which the artist projected the film in a side gallery removed from the “room within a gallery” installation that has become a recurring feature of her practice, here Thomas embeds the (now looped) film within a similarly immersive 1970s-era domestic simulacrum. In the present tableau, table lamps cast low-watt red and yellow light, and comfortable-looking stuffed armchairs, gloriously patterned ottomans, faux-wood paneling, knickknacks, and decorative tchotchkes achieve such seamless verisimilitude that the space seems to invite viewers to make themselves at home while watching a rerun of the documentary.

In the twenty-three-minute work, Bush retells in detail the often-emotional stories of her life as an aspiring model. When asked if she has any regrets, she answers, “Addiction.” Poignantly, Bush tells her daughter, who is off camera, that “to really work along with you makes me feel like I have accomplished something.” Toward the middle of the film, she answers Thomas’s questions from a hospital bed, with a frankness that might be compared to that of Karl Haendel’s Questions for My Father from the previous year. But unlike Haendel’s piece, produced with filmmaker Petter Ringbom, in which sixteen men from the artists’ circles face the camera as they direct uncomfortable questions toward their fathers—“When were you proud of me?” “Did you have any black friends as a kid?” “Was I a mistake?”—Thomas’s features a dutifully beholden daughter asking gentle and indirect questions of Bush, letting her mother determine her own life’s narrative arc.

Thomas protracts this sense of duty toward her mother’s legacy by casting an assortment of Bush’s possessions in bronze. These items are displayed mostly on circular tables in the main gallery, but a few bronzed garments hung from coat hangers against wood-paneled backdrops (also cast in bronze) are interspersed among three paintings along the gallery walls. On display, and no doubt pulled from Bush’s closet, are a double-breasted jacket, a pair of pants, and a sweater, each given the moniker Untitled with the specific item listed in parentheses (all works 2014). The three paintings that alternated with the bronze wall works, feature black-glitter script against flat primary-colored acrylic grounds in red, blue, and yellow, and present quotes from Bush: MAKE SURE TO ALLOW PEOPLE TO TAKE CARE OF YOU; THE MAGIC OF BELIEVING; AND I WAS BORN TO DO GREAT THINGS. These paintings are as conceptually thin as the trite language they bear, and suffer from their juxtaposition with the bronzed objects that so dramatically transfigure the stuff of everyday life.

The bronze-cast and painted items that inhabit the tables include gaudy earrings, lipsticks, a camera, and a curious large red clamshell studded with rhinestones. The tables displaying these items are, of course, another form of tableau, self-contained vignettes that serve to artificially frame into keepsake collections these personal articles, which Thomas mined from Bush’s vanity drawers and jewelry boxes. Yet the tabletop compositions lack the domestic intimacy that Thomas achieves in her figure paintings, collages, and room-size tableaux.

It is within room spaces that Thomas’s women, including her mother, obtain their presence and stature. “I was born to do great things” is an eloquent memorializing gesture toward a woman who, even in death, provides the artist with inspiration. But Thomas’s paintings, none of which are on display here, relay an interior intensity that this collection of accoutrements and video footage never quite musters.

Michelle Grabner