Mickalene Thomas's paintings in her small solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art are a joy to look at. Swarovski rhinestones sparkle off their surfaces, which dance with eye-popping patterns and entice with thin washes and thick dollops of paint. That luxuriance is painting's legacy, and Thomas offers it up even as she challenges some of the underpinnings of visual seduction.
The artist has had quite a year. Her much larger solo exhibition, “Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe,” opened at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, then moved in an expanded version to the Brooklyn Museum, to much acclaim. Her work, in addition to its dazzle, is technically and conceptually rigorous.
She makes large-scale portraits of black women in fractured interiors. The figures remain intact as the space around them implodes, shuffles, and flattens. “Origin of the Universe” featured works that co-opted paintings from the canon in which women were sexualized, such as Édouard Manet’s 1863 “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe.” Thomas substituted gaudy, powerful black women for all three figures, and surrounded them with textile patterns.
The nude woman reclining in the grass in Manet’s painting was daring at the time in such a bourgeois scene, but lounging nudes were common in 19th- and early-20th-century painting, and called odalisques — a word derived from Turkish. Orientalist artists such as Eugene Delacroix romanticized the Middle East and the harem culture in their odalisque paintings. Through today’s lens, we recognize the power dynamics at work — the objectification of women and darker-skinned non-Europeans, all through the artist’s gaze, not to mention the viewer’s. That’s Art History 101.
Some of the paintings in Thomas’s ICA show recall Matisse’s odalisques from the 1920s and 1930s. With his jazzy, brilliant patterns, Matisse must have been a magnetic draw for Thomas. His odalisques were not always nude; all of Thomas’s women are clothed here. She invites models to her studio and photographs them, then collages the photos, tearing up and reorganizing the space, and uses those collages as sources for her paintings.
For instance, in the right-hand panel of the diptych “Baby I Am Ready Now,” a dark brown woman in a green and white dress sits on a low sofa or bed, hand cupping her cheek, staring directly at us. She’s bold, certain. The shadows along her skin gleam with black rhinestones. The patterns around her wriggle the retina: red and blue cross-hatched drapes, throw pillows with animal prints and stripes, a spread blossoming with big gold and black flowers.
In the left panel, Thomas ramps up the collage feel with strips of zebra and leopard prints and a left border of painted faux wood paneling. The portrait here is the work’s center of gravity, but that gravity is enforced by the fragmentation surrounding it.
Thomas, born in 1971, draws specifically on decorative styles from the ’70s, an era of black pride and surging feminism. Her first model was her late mother, who had been a professional model. Thomas’s short film, “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother,” will screen at the ICA on Jan. 12 and Jan. 13, and again in March and April.
“Sandra: She's a Beauty” shows the artist’s mother decked out in red, bedazzled with pink eye shadow and blue eyeliner. Her dress, her hair, the contours of her body sparkle. She sits primly, feet and knees together, hands clasped in her lap, looking off to the left. Thomas gives her a halo on one side, echoing her outline in black rhinestones. Around her, pillows flatten, the grain of the wood paneling shifts from horizontal to vertical, strips of pattern or straight black frame the scene.
Matisse isn’t the only artist who reverberates through works such as this. You can see a hint of painter Romare Bearden’s flattened, jazzy scenes. The jagged, lopsided, bare suggestion of a grid as patterns butt up against each other brings to mind the syncopation of the Gees Bend quilters, the Alabama crafters who were unwittingly making Modernist quilts in the mid-to-late 20th century. Thomas’s use of rhinestones recalls Joyce Scott, the longtime sculptor of funky beadwork.
We can read Thomas’s work as an indictment of power structures that are still in place, but that doesn’t explain their sheer exuberance. Rather, these paintings reclaim and honor their subjects — who are there to celebrate their own beauty. If the viewer’s delectation is part and parcel with that, well, why not?
The artist’s more recent paintings here, made this year, do not include the figure. A feminine presence lurks in the patterns, the designs, the flowers, but Thomas gets even more ambitious with her shuffling of perspective and all the luscious things she can do with paint.
Two wicker seats with zebra-patterned upholstery anchor “Interior: Zebra With Two Chairs and Funky Fur.” The fur that splays between them sports a thin wash of beige, and writhing brown-black spots of thick, delicious impasto. Tilting, vertical passages of glossy white provide breathing space, against which dance painterly columns of teal, shiny yellow, smooth black, and a sliver of frosting-thick cream with a fraction of an olive diamond shape peaking from it. Every inch of the painting is thought out, every section different.
It’s hard to say where Thomas is going, if she truly moves beyond the portraits for which she has acquired some fame. She’d be shedding a weighty piece of art historical ballast. But she might make more room for herself, and her impressive technique.