Bling-Bling: Mickalene Thomas at the ICA

Mickalene Thomas is showing five works at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston until April 7th 2013, all in one massive room. Her pieces are on wood and painted with acrylics and enamel and rhinestones, with all of her mediums on a large scale of six to eight feet tall, and none of them existing in the exact same dimensions.

Her style is deconstructivist; each portrait an image, but each portrait separated into shards of spaces.

Inspired by the 70s and feminism, her influences replicate themselves in her art; these are images of the great indoors--what was once considered the female domain--in patterns and prints and rhinestones. And when she's not highlighting an interior space, it's because she's showing an African-American woman in an interior space.

Three of her pieces represent that.

Baby I Am Ready Now is the piece that the museum totes as representative of her work. Here, a woman with a stunning afro lays boldly, seductively, and stares directly at the viewer.

But the two pieces that really caught my attention were I'll Still Be True and Sandra: She's a Beauty.

I'll Still Be True is a portrait of an African-American woman, back turned to the viewer with her long straight blonde hair featured, and a mirror in her hands, that has been rhinestoned. (Did I mention the rhinestones?) Now, my first thoughts here were that this may be a feminist work of art, but this not an Afro-centric work of art, because how many African-American women naturally have straight, blonde hair? (Answer: not enough to represent a norm.) The woman was wigging it.

Or weaving it. And possibly having it shipped in from Illinois by the truckload.

Curly, nappy hair is a nasty area of contention. It's been historically undesirable. This has created a very specific hair culture, from twisting it or dreading it or growing it out au natural (with some conditioners--I mean, let's be honest; fro maintenance is not a breeze) or cropping it short to straightening it, relaxing it, dying it, braiding it (with false hair inserted), or slipping on a wig and rushing out the door.

And that's the shortened list. So, why display a woman whose hairstyle is less like the one she grows? And then why entitled the piece, I'll Still Be True when she's not being true to herself? But then I thought, perhaps this is commentary on that very culture; perhaps she's being true to that very specific African-American desire to have non-African-American hair.

Maybe the only difference is the mindset of the viewer.

This piece then, almost becomes the ethical opposite of Sandra: She's a Beauty. Here we have a woman with an afro, dressed in her Sunday best and sitting demurely while looking away from the viewer.

And even though she's not as bold as the other women, there is a sense of regality to her. I'd even go as far as to say I felt a need to lift my chin to match her energy.

Sandra, I later came to find, is Mickalene Thomas' mother.

While referencing a culture only a few decades removed from our own, Thomas creates art that is both clean and fractured. Ironic and honest. Wooden, and full of rhinestones.