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Hank Willis Thomas: What We Ask Is Simple
About This Exhibition
Screen-printed onto retroreflective vinyl and mounted on an aluminum composite material, Hank Willis Thomas’ latest body of work depicts protests and the direct actions of 20th century social movements: the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, the American Indian movement, and the Stonewall riots – among others.
The photographic works on view are largely inspired by artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Michelangelo Pistoletto; social activist photographers like James "Spider" Martin, Charles Moore, and Dorothea Lange; and the courageous human rights work of Gloria Richardson, Elizabeth Eckford and Elizabeth Spencer, and Amelia Boynton Robinson. Notably, the series shares Warhol and Rauschenberg’s simultaneous fascinations with the hand of the artist and the repetition of mass-produced imagery.
Thomas, who trained as a photographer, has always focused on framing and context, using appropriated, and in this case, archival images along with new or rarely used technical processes. Much of his work on display demands that viewers shift their position or use a tool to see it in its entirety, a reminder of the multiple ways of looking at a given moment or subject. His retroreflective works — which are activated by flash photography — encourage the viewer to look more closely. By taking that flash photograph, the viewer reveals the latent image, thereby stepping into the role of image maker.
The advent of digital photography and the rise of social media have resulted in a proliferation of instant photographs and photographers. Meanwhile, artists like Thomas have felt eerily alienated from the medium, which once relied as heavily on research, patience, and ingenuity as it did on equipment, skill, and talent. In a sense, this new body of work is an attempt to recapture the wonder of experimentation that originally drew Thomas to photography. The series incorporates silvering, halftone screen printing, and 3D image capture—processes that came about thanks to the advancements of photography. The revelatory experience once felt in the darkroom is echoed throughout the show, as Thomas returns to image making, joined by the viewer, without which his works would not be complete.
As a result, Thomas challenges his audience to think differently about their role in society’s evolution. He reminds us that the societal tumult witnessed in the news and on the streets is part of a hard-fought, perennial battle for equality and that we should not fail to acknowledge the overwhelming mass of people who use their creativity, courage and ambition to inspire change within their communities.
About The Artist
Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He works primarily with themes related to perspective identity, commodity, media, and popular culture. Thomas received a B.F.A. in Photography and Africana Studies from New York University in 1998, as well as his M.F.A. in Photography, and an M.A. in Visual and Critical Studies from California College of the Arts in San Francisco in 2004. He has received honorary doctorates from the Maryland Institute of Art, Baltimore, MD and the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, Portland, ME in 2017.
Thomas’ work has been featured in several publications including 25 under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers (CDS, 2003), 30 Americans (RFC, 2008) as well as his monograph Pitch Blackness (Aperture, 2008). He has exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the world and has work in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Brooklyn Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. His collaborative projects have been supported by the Tribeca Film Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival.
He has permanent installations at the Birmingham and Oakland International Airports, and the Oakland Museum of California, San Francisco. In addition, he has two current Public Art Fund projects: Image Objects at City Hall Park, New York City; and Hank Willis Thomas: The Truth Is I See You at MetroTech Commons, Brooklyn, NY. In 2017, Thomas unveiled his permanent public artwork “Love Over Rules” in San Francisco and “All Power to All People” in Opa Locka, FL. Thomas’ first comprehensive survey Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… will open in the fall of 2019 at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, OR. Previous exhibitions at the Gantt Center include Question Bridge: Black Males (2014) and Progeny Two: Deb Willis & Hank Willis Thomas + Fo Wilson & Dayo (2010).
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