Hank Willis Thomas
July 15 to September 30, 2012
My work is about framing and context. More specifically, I am fascinated with how history and culture are framed, who is doing the framing, and how these factors affect our interpretation of reality. Partially inspired by Harvey Young's recent book, Embodying the Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body, this exhibition is a visual and conceptual exploration of the black body as spectacle and souvenir in American popular culture. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord writes, "The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images." He continues, "The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized." Using these writings as cues, I investigate the power of the image to support or subvert misleading "grand narratives" about history and the present moment.
In recent years I have approached my art practice assuming the role of a visual culture archaeologist. I am interested in the ways that popular imagery informs how people perceive themselves and others around the world. My work brings history forward through framing our experience of race, class, and gender as conditioned by popular culture then and now. Ultimately, my goal is to subvert the common perception of "black history" as somehow separate from American history, and to reinstate it as indivisible from the totality of past social, political, and economic occurrences that make up contemporary American culture.
When working with historically and emotionally charged content, I am constantly confronted with questions of morality and accountability. Are there responsible ways to re-present images of horror and abuse? By reinvestigating historical artifacts and tropes, might we reveal counter narratives that inspire us to reimagine their relationship to the present moment? What happens when the visual legacy of American lynching collides with the visual legacy of the slam dunk? Can twenty-first-century images of African-American men in triumph be seen as responses to twentieth-century images of them in torture? Are they a form of erasure or evolution? What is the relationship between black fieldwork, then and now? Can the ubiquitous language of commodity culture and advertising be employed to speak to and about more than merchandise and celebrity? If so, to what end?
Hank Willis Thomas
Top of page: Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, 2011
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York