Bright and Polished

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Mickalene Thomas, "You're Gonna Give Me the Love I Need", 2010. Rhinestones, acrylic and enamel on wood panel 96" x 144". Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Gallery.

A group called R.A.I.D. (Random Acts of Irreverent Dance) regularly performs at the Echoplex in Echo Park. They appeared at Bootie L.A., a monthly mash-up party, this past Saturday, wearing shimmering orange body-suits and making awkward movements that somehow still seemed organic. R.A.I.D. practitioners have all different sorts of bodies—beer bellies, jutting hip bones, love handles—and they’re not necessarily good dancers. “No formal dance training required, in fact, having two left feet might be a plus,” reads their recruitment blurb on Sometimes they look like Isabella Rossellini did dressed as a snail for her Green Porno video: confident, cartoon-like and uncomfortably seductive. In costume and on stage, the dancers have a not-quite-human, object-like aura that makes them seem empowered, though it’s difficult to tell exactly what they are empowered to do.

I first saw R.A.I.D. the same night I saw Mickalene Thomas’s second solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Projects. The bodies in Thomas’s garnished paintings also exude an object-like prowess and, like watching R.A.I.D., looking at Thomas’s work makes object, objectification, and objection all slide into each other. The bodies Thomas depicts become part of the fragmented, textured décor around them. And becoming décor, it turns out, can be as much a crutch as an asset.

Mickalene Thomas, "Put A Little Sugar In My Bowl", Installation view, Solo Exhibition Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 2010.

Called Put Some Sugar in My Bowl, the exhibition includes ten glossy enamel paintings on panel, each embedded with rhinestones, Thomas’s favorite accoutrement. The exhibition’s title approximates the refrain of I Need Some Sugar in My Bowl, a saucily unhurried Bessie Smith song that later mellowed into a Nina Simone ballad. The exhibition, like the song, exudes a grown-up sense of longing that manifests through stuff—for Bessie and Nina, the stuff consisted of bowls, foodstuff and a little steamed-up clothing; Thomas’s stuff tends to be drapery, paneling and bling. But while the song has loose riffs and paced pauses between stanzas, Thomas’ paintings have jutting fragments of pattern and flourishes that collide with one another.

In Love’s Been Good #3, a black woman with daunting blue eye shadow and audacious red lipstick that makes her look like she could be in drag, sits in front of a sofa made up of so many collaged patterns it becomes difficult to identify. Her sarong falls open and drapes down onto the floor, leaving her legs exposed. Her feet—she wears purple, rhinestone-bejeweled heels—can’t seem to find a comfortable place to rest.

"Love's Been Good To Me #3", 2010. Rhinestones, acrylic and enamel on wood panel 96" x 72". Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Projects.

Thomas’s work is often discussed in relation Ingres’s and Matisse’s Odalisques. This makes sense. Thomas plays with art historical poses, her figures lounging across the picture plane, and odalisques tend to look slightly uncomfortable in their painted poses—sometimes because, as in the case of Ingres’s 1814 The Grand Odalisque, they have a few too many vertebrae, or, as with Matisse’s 1921 Odalisque, they seem about to tumble off a sofa. In Thomas’s repertoire, the women haven’t been made uncomfortable as much as they’ve made themselves that way–the way the figure in Give Me the Love I Need stacks her legs on top of each other would require steady muscle power to maintain, but she seems to know that. “Uncomfortable” becomes a self-protective strategy augmented by the patterned stuff that populates each painting and competes with the figures for attention.

Odalisques are property, concubines that belong to someone. Thomas’s women have property, want property, embody property. “I feel like the rhinestones in my paintings are like the really glossy lipstick that women wear,” Thomas said in an interview with Nylon Magazine. “It’s another layer of masking.” Kara Walker wrote about Thomas for Bomb Magazine a year ago: “Thomas’s Soul Sisters gaze out from between contrasting arrays of color and pattern. In her hands, the Black woman is both a bright and polished Ebony ideal and a picture of womanist yearning.”

Making yourself an object is a way of objecting to being made into anything by anyone else, and such an objection suggests the desire for something more than the Ebony ideal or a lipstick-inspired layer of masking. But while yearning can certainly be expressed by bright, polished, posed, rhinestoned masks, can it be met? My favorite line in Bessie Smith’s song is “Maybe I can fix things up, so they’ll go.” Thomas’s figures are always fixed up but intentionally stationary. They’re captive to their personae, but that’s why you create a persona in the first place: so that you can stay inside of it.