Lehmann Maupin, March 26 – May 2, 2009
Even the word dazzling is not up to the job of describing the kaleidoscopic array of visual pleasures Mickalene Thomas offers in her first solo show at Lehmann Maupin Gallery. Since the African-American women Thomas portrays in her paintings are in control and decidedly done up—dressed to the nines and posed in studio spaces full of busy fabrics—there’s clearly an ironic twist in the exhibition title, She’s Come Undone! Thomas’ daring use of color and her obsessive, almost painstaking deployment of rhinestones highlight the pleasures these women take in adorning and displaying themselves. So her exhibition’s title should be read as an exclamation of relish, encouragement, and abandon.
In “Don’t forget about me (Keri)” (2009), a larger-than-life portrait, Keri wears a bright yellow blouse, a thick black belt, and a purplish blue skirt. Thomas has depicted the curves of these clothes and accessories with rhinestones so they light up and shimmer. If that wasn’t enough to catch the eye, Thomas has posed Keri in front of a background that collages sherbet green floral wallpaper and narrow strips of wood paneling (which highlights Keri’s rich brown skin) with blocks of solid colors and a design composed of overlapping black polka dots. Depicted from the side to emphasize her curves and with her hand placed prominently on her hip, Keri looks up and away with starry optimism, far beyond the frame of this painting.
Synthesizing poses from contemporary celebrity culture and images from the canon of art history, She’s Come Undone! reinvents portraiture as a genre for rendering the drama of self-display. Imagine portraits that combine inspiration from Blaxploitation films, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres “Une Odalisque” (1814), Andy Warhol’s silk screen portraits, and Lil’ Kim’s album covers. Yet, these influences never overshadow the good-humored, woman-centered, celebratory fun that is Thomas’ signature style. In “A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y” (2009), the exhibition’s most explicit allusion to Warhol, Thomas has assembled a panel of forty small close-ups of women’s faces. Reproduced from photographs or video stills, these images depict an array of expressions ranging from pensive to seductive to ecstatically happy. Thomas has painted the backgrounds with bright pinks, yellows, whites, and blues and composed the women’s hair, faces, and smiles with black rhinestones. This bold visual dynamic contributes to the work’s subtle but unmistakably positive statement. The rhinestones are key to this; they animate the women’s expressions with density and texture and implicitly argue against Warhol’s erasure of the portrait subject.
In Lehmann Maupin’s south gallery is a series of diptychs that are at the heart of She’s Come Undone! Love letters to African-American women reveal the process through which Thomas creates her portraits and hint at the sadness that moves through her work but is difficult to pin-point with all its vibrancy and glamor. Titled “Ain’t I a Woman,” after Sojourner Truth’s famous speech that demanded African-American women be included in the struggle for women’s rights, these pieces link painted portraits with videos in which we see Thomas’s muses posing for photographs. The songs of Eartha Kitt play from behind the framed video monitors, reminding viewers of a generation of women who achieved success in music and theatre despite virulent racism. Watching the women in moments before they construct an image for the photographer is the most interesting aspect of the videos. They show us how self-perception moves between the privacy of the body and the world outside of it. In “Ain’t I a Woman (Sandra),” viewers see Sandra arrange her hair, take a deep breath, and turn to the side for a profile before demurely placing her hands on her lap. At other points in the video, she shakes out and arranges her mane-like hair (a slightly shorter version of Diana Ross’s famously elongated hairstyle) while her silver earrings shake and sparkle. The painted portrait placed to the left of the monitor isolates just one of the poses in Sandra’s video, but her contrapposto stance, shoulder pads, and copper belt crystallize the playful grace she expressed in the video’s fluid time. The wood paneling in the portrait’s background gives the work a nostalgic, homey feel and reminds us of women creatively composing themselves in quotidian, ordinary spaces.
She’s Come Undone! seems like the perfect counterpoint to the media’s obsession with Michelle Obama’s style. Thomas portrays these women with a hip, gritty, and sexy edge that our First Lady probably possesses but can’t present to the world without causing a scandal. These paintings tell us that those quick to criticize attention to Michelle’s wardrobe for want of more serious issues are missing something important. Thomas’s work argues that the way in which African-American women adorn and display themselves is serious business, dense with tales of survival and self-invention worthy of our attention.