One of the most celebrated contemporary artists working today, Thomas uses portraiture to explore personal and cultural identity
Rochester, N.Y., April 30, 2014—George Eastman House will feature the work of artist Mickalene Thomas in a new exhibition opening on June 20, Mickalene Thomas: Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman. In this exhibition, Thomas demonstrates her ongoing engagement with portraiture as a key to personal and cultural identity. Using her mother as her muse for the past decade, Thomas creates images that layer personal history with art history, revealing in the process the complex role of the mother-daughter bond for each woman’s sense of self. The exhibition will be on view in the museum’s Entrance Gallery through October 19.
Mickalene Thomas: Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman includes a group of large-scale photographic portraits, an installation and a film about the artist’s mother, former fashion model Sandra Bush. Combining a compositional approach deeply informed by nineteenth-century French painting with a keen eye for telling gestures and expressions, the images deftly capture the subject’s personal flair and dramatic presence.
“Thomas is trained as a painter, but employs photography as a vital part of her creative process,” said Lisa Hostetler, curator-in-charge, Department of Photography, George Eastman House.
“These photographs demonstrate her facility with the medium, and the critical role it plays in the work of one of today’s most celebrated artists.”
A major feature of this four-month exhibition is the film Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, a documentary portrait of Bush. Interspersed with excerpts from a conversation between the artist and her mother are archival film clips, snapshots, and scenes of her mother in her hospital bed as she suffers the effects of the kidney disease that took her life shortly after the film was completed. In the film, Bush, or “Mama Bush” as she refers to herself, discusses her childhood in Camden, New Jersey, in the 1950s and ’60s; her struggles with domestic violence and drug abuse; and her career as a model during the 1970s “Black Is Beautiful” era.
As she confronts the physical effects of aging and illness, her determination to maintain her characteristic poise and confidence is palpable, prompting reflection on the role of appearance in contemporary society. The result is a poignant work that feels both personal and universal.
“The film will be presented within a room-sized installation designed by the artist to evoke a 1970s living room, complete with period furnishings and wall coverings,” added Hostetler.
The public is invited to join Thomas and Hostetler for a conversation about the exhibition at noon on June 20 in the Entrance Gallery.
Mickalene Thomas: Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman is sponsored in part by Deborah Ronnen and Sherman F. Levey. For more information, visit eastmanhouse.org or call (585) 271-3361.
About the Artist: Mickalene Thomas
Mickalene Thomas is a distinguished, multidisciplinary visual artist and filmmaker who deftly combines art-historical, political, and pop-cultural references to create a striking commentary on what it means to be a woman in the 21st century by challenging conventional notions of beauty. Her work across various mediums is informed by her deep engagement with art history and classical genres of portraiture, landscape and still life, which she re-contextualizes in contemporary terms. She has exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally, including her recent solo exhibition Origin of the Universe, which originated at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, California, before traveling to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, where her film, Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, premiered. Thomas lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. To learn more about her, visit mickalenethomas.com.
About George Eastman House
George Eastman House holds unparalleled collections, totaling more than four million objects, of photographs, motion pictures, cameras and technology, and photographically illustrated books. Established as an independent non-profit institution in 1947, it is the world’s oldest photography museum and third largest film archive in the United States. The museum is in Rochester, New York, and includes the National Historic Landmark house and gardens of George Eastman, the philanthropist and father of popular photography and motion picture film. Learn more at eastmanhouse.org.