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The Vagina Dialogues

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The way many of us dread the prospect of going to 25-year school reunion is exactly how some artists feel about facing their own retrospective, where they will be confronted with all their artworks they haven't seen for years. It's emotional; it's unsettling; it's unnerving. So one can understand the reluctance of well known, Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas to say "yes" when Santa Monica Museum offered her a mid-career retrospective.

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Instead, she embarked on an impressive, if near-impossible task of creating -- in just one year -- about a dozen ambitious new paintings, varying in size from large to monumental. Her portraits, landscapes, nudes and interiors grab your eye with their bold colors and in-your-face use of glitter and rhinestones. Mickalene Thomas is not too shy to use herself and her friends either for formal portraits or daring displays of their own naked young bodies.

Some of these new works, especially her semi-abstract landscapes and interiors, not only grabbed but held my attention long after I left the museum. But her nudes -- where, in my opinion, she gets too close for comfort to great painters of the past -- are a quite different story...

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It takes courage and a lot of talent to take on the iconic artworks of a famous master. And when Mickalene Thomas decided to go head to head with the famously infamous masterpiece by 19th-century French painter Gustave Courbet, Origin of the World, depicting a close-up of the female vagina, she lost her battle. Knowing that the artist proudly embraces her identity as a black, gay woman, one understands the cultural implications of this artistic gesture. But even if you look at reproductions of Courbet's painting, belonging to the Musee d'Orsay, you will see how little Thomas has to say or add to the dialogue, other than substituting black nudity for Courbet's white nudity.

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And the same goes for her other painting, the biggest one in her exhibition, Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires, with its direct quotation of a Courbet painting depicting two voluptuous nude white women embraced in their sleep. Thomas shows, instead, a black woman embracing her yellow-skinned companion, their realistically depicted bodies superimposed over vast landscape depicted in a rather abstract fashion.

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Maybe, if the artist had the luxury of more time, her conversation with Courbet would have been more intriguing. But as it is, I felt sorry seeing her falling short of having meaningful dialogue with art of the past.

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Only a few months ago, reporting on my trip to Barcelona, I talked about famous Spanish artist Anthoni Tàpies, who mustered enough chutzpah and wit to go mano a mano with Courbet's Origin of the World. He totally, in my opinion, rose to the occasion, by smartly referring to, rather than mimicking, the original image.

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And the same goes for Anselm Kiefer when he was asked to do the impossible: to have a dialogue with the Rembrandt's most famous painting, The Night Watch, at the Rijksmuseum. He knew better than to directly quote the great master. Instead, he created an installation made of several dried-out sunflowers, evoking the spirit of Van Gogh, another great Dutch artist, who happened to be one of the first visitors to the Rijksmuseum when it opened to the public in the late 19th century.

The career of any artist of distinction is always full of battles, many of them won, some of them inevitably lost. I would like to know what you think of this exhibition of Mickalene Thomas and her risky dialogue with Big Boys of art's past.

Banner image: (L) Mickalene Thomas, Qusuquzah, une tres belle nigresse #3, 2012; (R) Din, une tres belle nigresse #2, 2012

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of "Art Talk," a program on art and culture for KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.