Chicago

Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas’s exhibition “Girlfriends, Lovers, Still Lifes, and Landscapes” far exceeds the decorative wallop of her first solo show two years ago at the same venue. She has become masterful at maximizing ornamentation and slick in her fearless color combinations. Her paintings, which combine large fields of poured enamel, thin brushy passages of acrylic paint, and thousands of fastidiously applied glitzy rhinestones, brazenly bring the feminist-inspired politics of the Pattern and Decoration movement to genre painting.

Landscape with Woman Washing Her Feet (all works 2008), which measures nine feet by twelve feet, is the least convincing of the exhibition’s twenty-two works, attempting as it does atmospheric space while producing mere clumsy, flat horizons. The patches of blue sky and distant mountainous geography lack the artist’s obsessive bejeweling, relying instead on awkward fields of characterless paint and dead opaque color, while the foliage bracketing the unspectacular vista is simply filled in, its array of green rhinestones conveying only illustrative effect. Thomas paints ornate, faux-wooden frames around many of her compositions, and the one here provides a welcome, playful illusion that distracts from the painting’s inadequacies. The work falls short both as a romantic landscape and as a more abstract patchwork of organic patterns.

Thomas nails her still-lifes, however. Here she strikes the perfect balance between Matissian flatness and excessive ornamentation. Still Life with Lamp, for example, portrays a lampshade with a gold-and-purple floral motif, numerous throw pillows, and various animal prints and geometric designs that abound in kitschy rhinestone-encrusted glory. Interspersed among the pillows are rectangular patches of a graphic daisy pattern that, painted in orange, green, and brown, evokes ’70s wallpaper and complements the wood paneling. Like many of Thomas’s latest paintings, Still Life with Lamp was based on a small photographic collage and contains multiple perspectives and puzzled-together patterns that together dramatize, rather than destabilize, its composition. The picture is extraordinarily powerful, and pushes the limits of the still-life genre.

Thomas is known for her portraits of strong and self-assured African-American women seated comfortably in lavish domestic environments; the women in these recent works, however, are subordinate to the exquisite, jubilant beauty of the compositions’ surface ornamentation (a result of the artist’s increased confidence in her handling of myriad, eclectic patterns). Tamika and Jessica with Flowers depicts two women cropped at their waists, sporting glittery eye shadow and shiny golden lipstick. It is the clothing and surroundings that convey exuberance and eroticism; the figures themselves are portrayed rather dully.

Three formal portraits done on oval supports unfortunately lack the potency of abstraction inherent in Thomas’s aggressively amalgamated compositions; each appears to be little more than one photographic portrayal transposed into a craft project. They pale in comparison to a work like Girlfriends and Lovers; based on a collage, this riveting painting features four elegantly dressed women seated around a table draped in a garish tablecloth: a feast of pride and pattern. Like deceased outsider artist Simon Sparrow, who obsessively rendered spiritual visions in beads and trinkets, Thomas shows an enterprising passion for decorative materials, particularly when working from her dynamic collages rather than simply replicating a photograph in rhinestones and paint.

Michelle Grabner