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  • Writer's pictureJason Jenn

Hank Willis Thomas

Another of my Staff Picks essays has been posted for the Torrance Art Museum. Read it at the following link or in the post below:

Strike,  2018, Stainless steel with mirrored finish

Strike, 2018, Stainless steel with mirrored finish

Hank Willis Thomas – written by Jason Jenn

Hank Willis Thomas needs to be a household name in the realm of contemporary art. I trust it will be soon, thanks to an impressive body of prescient works in recent years that address some of the weightiest subjects we face today. Thomas is a conceptual artist who reframes pop-cultural and historical imagery with a clean, clear graphic aesthetic that tackles themes like racial injustice, gender and racial inequality, gun violence, and corporate branding. There is no mistaking his message’s intent when it’s delivered with such stunning, visceral results.

I experienced a wide breadth of his work in Portland Art Museum’s exhibition All Things Being Equal…, his first major museum mid-career survey just before the pandemic outbreak in January of 2020. Thomas’ principal medium for expression is photography (he received his BFA and MFA in Photography –and his mother is a professional photographer with her own acclaimed career). However, in the past 25 years, he has created an eclectic body of work, including sculpture, mixed media, installation, video, and participatory performances. He also works on various interactive and collaborative projects to inspire public conversations about social justice and civil rights.

One of the first works on view was an immersive installation that created a shrine-like circle of long, dark blue banners embroidered with 14,719 stars evoking the American Flag, referencing thenumber of people shot and killed by gunfire in the United States in 2018. The work reflects one of the most shocking statistics of American culture that continually avoids being addressing by serious solutions. Thomas experienced a devastating loss firsthand. In 2000, his cousin (also his roommate and best friend) was killed by gunfire in a robbery outside a nightclub in Philadelphia. Like most of his works, he finds a way to resonate with everyone because he deals with such culturally pervasive issues.

“But all you have to be is alive in America and you can fall victim to gun violence.”– Hank Willis Thomas
Guernica,  2016,  mixed media including sports jerseys

Guernica, 2016, mixed media including sports jerseys

Thomas uses the language and design of advertising to communicate his message – he does not go for vague or subtle, and he does not pull his punches. He frequently explores how commercial/consumer brands exploit and profit from stereotypical images of the black experience.

He frequently critiques commercial sports, and in recent years it has become more apparent how the industry can use black men while being indifferent and hypocritical to racial issues. In his series B®anded, Thomas transforms the iconic Nike swoosh logo into a literal brand scarring the bodies, referencing the branding of slaves by their owners. He created quilted versions of Picasso’s Guernica and Matisse’s The Fall of Icarus, made out of bright, colorful familiar sports jerseys from teams like the Lakers and Knicks. It forces the viewer to question how the ideas of war and sacrifice in the original works relate to the challenges faced by professional athletes and the conditions they must endure to entertain the masses.

The Cotton Bowl, from the series Strange Fruit, 2011. Digital c-print

The Cotton Bowl, from the series Strange Fruit, 2011. Digital c-print

His sculptural work takes iconic imagery from historical photographs, isolating the most potent elements that stood out for him and transposing them into three-dimensional works that crop out everything but the essential focus. The results are chilling and monumental.

Raise Up 2014,  bronze

Raise Up 2014, bronze

While nothing compares to the reality of visiting a museum in person, digital media becomes even more critical during shelter-at-home. The Cincinnati Art Museum created a gorgeous exhibition video walk-through, narrated by Thomas that is worth checking out:

Commit the name Hank Willis Thomas to memory and when you have the opportunity to see his work, consider it a necessary experience.

Hank Willis Thomas,  Looking for America , 2018. Bronze and steel.

Hank Willis Thomas, Looking for America, 2018. Bronze and steel.

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