Symbols of Present-Day Power in Minerva Cuevas: In Gods We Trust
Exhibition Review by Madi Shenk
After opening its doors this past November, kurimanzutto gallery unveiled the second exhibition at its New York location on March 3. The solo exhibition of Mexico City-based artist Minerva Cuevas, In Gods We Trust will be open through April 15.
Mejor Vida offered services and products that were devised to resist the everyday inconveniences and expenses that plagued the lives of the city’s inhabitants. This involved, among other things, handing out free tickets for public transportation, cleaning subway platforms, forging student IDs to help citizens get discounts and free admission at public institutions, and doctoring barcode stickers to affix to groceries and trick the registers.
While the work of many artists merely points to societal issues such as impoverishment and institutional hierarchies, Cuevas’ early work provided tangible solutions to the inconveniences of life in Mexico City. Cuevas is an artist that, from the start, has utilized the creative format (in the early days, that of performance) in order to subvert the dialectics of capital.
Arranged within kurimanzutto’s spacious Chelsea location (520 W 20th St), In Gods We Trust combines sculpture, works on paper, and collected archival materials that reference the primacy of industry in the Americas.
Cuevas’ socially oriented art operates within the utopian tradition of post-revolutionary Mexican mural paintings, as evident by the artist’s use of the monumental wall relief format. Upon entering the gallery, the visitor is initially confronted with a piece based off of a mural painted by Diego Rivera inside the Palacio Nacional in downtown Mexico City titled Epoyeya del pueblo mexicano (Epic of the Mexican People) (1935).
In this work, Cuevas has isolated individual elements of the original mural and reimagined them in monochromatic relief, creating a fragmented image that mirrors the cultural fracturing that comes with colonization.
Cuevas has painted both of her large-scale wall reliefs entirely white, allowing them to merge with the space and appear as if they are directly protruding from the walls of the gallery. This opens up questions regarding the relationship between the messaging of the works and the arts institution, taking into consideration how the emblems of culture and capital are embedded in the space. While Cuevas’ work has moved from the streets to the gallery space, this shift can be seen as a means of showcasing the interconnectedness between art and capital, and their roles in determining cultural practices.
With the title In Gods We Trust, the exhibition utilizes the artistic format to equate the veneration of pre-Hispanic gods within the Americas to the widespread reverence of leaders of capital and commerce in the contemporary period. The powers we lay our trust in today appear to be the major financial and fossil fuel corporations that determine our material conditions, and Cuevas prompts visitors to examine the degree to which these emblems of culture and capital are embedded in our psyches.
Gallo, Rubén. “Urbanism.” In New Tendencies in Mexican Art: The 1990s, 91-133. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Kurimanzutto. Minerva Cuevas: In Gods We Trust. New York: Kurimanzutto, 2023. Exhibition catalog.
Mickalene Thomas’ Material Intervention: Recontextualizing the Black Female Nude in June 1977
By Madi Shenk
In her multimedia painting, June 1977 (2021), Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas subverts photographic source image’s original context by partially camouflaging the depicted figure with rhinestones, acrylic paint, and digital distortion. The work confronts the viewer with a frenzy of colors and textures to subvert the heteronormative beauty ideals assigned to women in mass media materials. The combination of textures within the composition produces a hypnotic effect—a “lure of the surface” that destabilizes the viewer’s encounter with the figure. Thomas uses strategies of visual excess as a means of obscuring and reimagining elements of the female body within the work. Her layering of media creates a topographical richness within the painting’s surface that complicates the act of viewing and leads to a multifaceted reading of the depicted figure. In doing this, Thomas creates an image that oscillates between the preexisting associations attached to the source images and the monumental display of Black feminine empowerment that she presents through material intervention.
While Thomas’s work calls upon histories of hyper-sexualization of the female nude by white male viewers, art historian Derek Conrad Murray points out that her work often deals with histories of interracial misogyny, “particularly in the male-dominated 1970s Black Power era,” Murray defines Thomas’s work in relation to what he calls “post-black visual art,” arguing that it is a marked rejection of heteronormative understandings of Blackness. This is done precisely through Thomas’s inclusion of images steeped in heteronormative beauty ideals. The collaged elements within this painting are taken from a photograph of a Black female model from the “Beauty of the Week” segment of Jet magazine. Established in 1951, Jet was a weekly magazine directed towards male and female adult African American readers. The contrast between articles targeted to women that provided instructions for attaining feminine beauty versus the sexual character of the “Beauty of the Week” photographs clearly meant to display archetypes of the Black female form reflect a time in which mainstream media (in both Black and white spheres) largely reflected the ideals of men.
Thomas’s fragmentation of the nude female figure within June 1977, in combination with the smooth and textured planes of paint, rhinestones, photocollage, and digital manipulation, creates a sense of instability of the painting’s surface and subverts the viewer’s perception of the figure within it. This is evidenced through Thomas’s decision to pixelate the most sexually charged area of the original image in which a bouquet of flowers has been stuffed into the model’s underwear.
The detail shows an amorphous shape situated in place of the female figure’s abdomen and pubic area, delineated by a thick contour line of gray rhinestones. The image itself is not pixelated—it sits behind a grid-like system of squares creating a sense of contrast between the hard-edged pixelation and the gritty materiality of the 1970s-era source photo. At first glance, it is difficult to discern what is being depicted here. The organic forms may initially read as abstract shapes in grayscale or bodily intestines given their location; but a longer, closer look reveals a bouquet of flowers or leafy plants covering the figure’s genitals. Plant matter visually sits in place of what is colloquially referred to as one’s “bush.”
The combination of photographic elements and Thomas’s own digital and material interventions is used throughout the rest of the composition to suspend the figure in a setting that simultaneously refers to the sexualized context of the original black and white photograph and a colorful non-place created through partial pixelization and the collagic assemblage of painted planes of patterns and textures joint by rhinestone-covered contour lines. By outlining this detail in rhinestones while obscuring the image itself, Thomas makes it clear that she is aware of the photograph’s original intentions and aims to undermine them.
By reappropriating figures from Jet, Thomas reminds the viewer of the expectations historically assigned to women and subsequently asserts the dominance of the depicted figure by blowing them up to a massive scale and adorning them with a frenzy of textures and materials.
The photographic pieces of the figure’s body are enough to make us recognize them as a real person while the painted and embellished fragments that make up the rest of the composition do the contradictory work of pulling the viewer back out of this space and into one of Thomas’s own material creations. This takes place in the form of patches of white and lavender acrylic paint built up into a rich texture that almost mimics icing, and painted green cross-hatching that looks as if it has been sealed with varnish or resin to achieve its shiny finish. Through a mixture of photographic elements, painted planes of color and texture, technicolor rhinestone contour lines, and carefully placed digital interventions, Thomas exempts the figure from its original, male-dominated setting, and gives it new life within a context that resists both time and place.
As the title of the exhibition in which June 1977 was first shown suggests, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Thomas’ work places the central figure within a dreamscape of her own creation that goes beyond the carnal pleasure that the source photograph was meant to produce in its original viewer. The various materials used by Thomas can also be understood as tools for elevating the female subject beyond its original male-dominated context, giving further agency to the subject’s gaze upon the viewer.
The sexualized image implicates histories of objectified women in media, while Thomas’s material interventions activate the Black female gaze of the subject. Through these material strategies, Thomas removes the female form from its original “object status,” and presents a figure that is defiant and confident as opposed to belittled and objectified.
Flourney, Angela. “Mickalene Thomas is Reinventing Nudes.” The New York Times Magazine,
Oct. 13, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/13/magazine/mickalene-thomas.html
Murray, Derek Conrad. “Mickalene Thomas: Afro Kitsch and the Queering of Blackness.”
American Art 28, no. 1 (2014): 9-15.
Rudolph, Ellen. Pattern ID. Akron, Ohio: Akron Art Museum, 2010.
Schlabach, Elizabeth Schroeder. “‘Choice Seatmate’ or Judith Stewart, Jet’s September 7, 1955
Beauty of the Week: Sexuality, Modern Black Beauty Discourse, and the Reach for Civil
Rights.” Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South 24, no. 1 (2017): 76-94.
Skelly, Julia. Radical Decadence: Excess in Contemporary Feminist Textiles and Craft. London:
Bloomsburg Academic, 2017. https://www.bloomsburydesignlibrary.com/encyclopedia?docid=b-9781474284981
Smith, Sarah Stefana. 2018. “Surface Play: Rewriting Black Interiorities through Camouflage
and Abstraction in Mickalene Thomas’s Oeuvre.” Women & Performance 28, no. 1 (2018): 46–64.
Thomas, Mickalene. “Mickalene Thomas,” interview by Sean Landers, BOMB, no. 116, July 2011: 30-38.