Hank Willis Thomas
"What We Ask Is Simple"
New York, 513 West 20th Street and 524 West 24th Street
In this newest body of work, Thomas continues to investigate 20th century protests in Africa, North America and Europe. These works remind us that the societal tumult we witness in the news and in the streets is part of a hard-fought, perennial battle for equality; and that we should not forget to acknowledge the overwhelming mass of people who use their creativity, courage, and community to inspire change.
The mirrors, retroreflective, and sculptural works on view in the exhibition 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, among countless others. 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, in this case, archival images along with new or rarely used technical processes. Much of his work 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 silvered glass mirrors create both a moment of reflection and an opportunity for the viewer to become part of the historic moment, while 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 audience, without which his works would not be complete.
On view through May 12, 2018