Mickalene Thomas's paintings teleport us to a black-is-beautiful American 1960s and '70s. Ebony women with afros sprawl on couches in apartments electrified by zebra prints, floral fabrics, and leopard spots.

The Brooklyn artist's intoxicating patterns and decoration are what first grab you. She paints her scenes with lush, fluid acrylic and enamels, and bedazzles everything with rhinestones. She often assembles her patchwork compositions from photos she stages and then augments with collage. But at the core of her five-painting exhibit organized by curatorial associate Anna Stothart at the Institute of Contemporary Art is contemplation of the power of beauty and seduction, the power in womanhood and blackness.

All this has made her one of the hottest artists in New York — and the subject of a traveling survey now at the Brooklyn Museum. Like Romare Bearden and Kerry James Marshall, she revamps modern art to address African-American life. Her paintings of black women with naturally frizzy hair and dressed in bold patterns speak of nostalgia for her childhood (she was born in 1971), when such fashion statements were radical declarations of black pride.

Thomas's avatar for all of this is her mom, Sandra Bush, who modeled when she was young and died in November at age 61. "Growing up, my mother would walk into a room and her beauty was so powerful that she could get whatever she wanted from people — attention, conversation," Thomas tells me. "People just wanted her energy, they wanted to be around her."

Depicted in the 2009 painting Sandra: She's a Beauty, her mom is an older but still bewitching lady perched on the edge of a couch. But the magnetic beauty that her mother seems to symbolize for Thomas is more evident in her 2007 painting Baby I Am Ready Now. It shows an African-American woman in a green-and-white patterned dress lounging on a couch amidst gingham curtains, spotted pillows, and a floral-print spread. Her chin rests in her hand. Her legs are spread. Her expression is sober, sultry, a bit bored. The painting conveys a frank, unself-conscious sexuality that commands respect.

Thomas has tried to expand her repertoire in recent paintings of empty interiors that evoke glamorous 1930s Hollywood movie apartments and '70s African-American funk décor. But absent of women, they seem like stage sets waiting for the stars to arrive.


MICKALENE THOMAS :: ICA, 100 Northern Ave, Boston :: Through April 7 :: 617.478.3100 or 

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