Picture Windows: The Art Work of Hank Willis Thomas


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Art work integrates film, video, sculpture, drawing and more.

Art work integrates film, video, sculpture, drawing and more.
Picture Windows, a new series of site-specific installations from a global selection of contemporary artists can be seen  at  the International Center of Photography in New York City. The inaugural project features work by conceptual photographer Hank Willis Thomas (b.1976) in collaboration with interdisciplinary artist Sanford Biggers and examines themes of multiplicity, identity, performance and gesture. It will be on view in ICP’s 43rd Street windows through May 5.

“The work of Hank Willis Thomas has often made use of vernacular imagery repurposed with subversive results,” said Mark Robbins, ICP Executive Director. “We are pleased to have this type of work, which is tied to an activist use of the image, as the inaugural project for this new ICP series.”
The installation explores perspective in relation to theatricality and identity. Clad in a divided black and white suit, top hat, and dress shoes, Biggers strikes 13 distinct poses that allude to “dandies,” vaudeville performers, dancers, and even Kabuki actors. Inspired by a portrait of a late-19th-century performer, the costume also refers to the Yoruba deity Elegba, the protector of travels and crossroads.

“When dealing with black and white, it’s important not to forget the gray space in between, where I often feel more comfortable,” said Thomas. “I wanted to present cultural hybridity as an intricate performance. Sanford is the kind of artist whose work often straddles this idea and I felt he would the perfect conduit to address this subject.”

Here is a portion of a recent conversation with the artist:

PB: I guess we should begin with the most obvious question – What is your show, Pitch Blackness, about?

HWT: I think Pitch Blackness is a show that’s trying to contend with issues of race, identity, and history in the age of Obama. The title of the show, which I took from the book Aperture published of my work, plays on the idea of pitching or throwing away blackness, the permanency of the color black, and the proposal of blackness as a race.

PB: In the B®anded  series, you make and manipulate images so they resemble commercial advertisements. In Unbranded, you erase text from advertisements from the late 1960s to the present as a means of focusing your viewer’s eye on the charged imagery advertisers use to sell their products. Appropriated and manipulated images lie at the core of both bodies of work. I feel like you’ve made a very clear shift in this show from the use of appropriated images to manipulated text. Did you make those choices intentionally, as a parallel to the current shift of power in our country’s government?

HWT: One of the most challenging things [about this show] was that most of the thought and research happened before the election and there was a lot deliberation in the studio. How do I make work that’s relevant, and that talks about race and culture? With the prospect of having a black president it seemed like it was easier to make same of the old work or present some of the same ideas [if McCain had won]. But with Obama, I had to at least make work that was a little more open-ended and perhaps try to inspire some degree of hope, openness or lightness. That was very hard for me to try to visualize and photograph in a way that would have a lasting impression.

There had already been so much iconography [produced in response to] Obama. With that in mind, and having read a lot of books and looking at old photographs, I decided to make a piece that used text from a book published in the turn of the last century called The Progress of the Race. For the piece, the text was engraved on the surface of three granite headstones. The first phrase says, “Some fair questions.” The second one, “The slate is clean;” and the last, “Everything must go.” Those three phrases stood out for me. I was trying to ask fair questions of the moment; if the slate is “clean” as so many people were trying to suggest and celebrate after the election, then everything must go – all of our ideas about race, identity, history, and the past must be rethought and restructured. I don’t happen to believe the slate is "clean," in that context. These headstones are a way of trying to lay history to rest.

PB: I am curious about your choice of materials for a lot of the pieces. Your background is in photography, yet the show diverges from that, both materially and in terms of content. Can you talk a bit about your decision making process regarding the use of new materials?

HWT: Due to my choice of materials, this is the first show where I relied on other people [for production]. I wanted to create work almost as thought I were an art director, and I wanted to think about the show and the concept behind it as though it were an ad campaign. I worked with various sign companies and graphic designers to actually make work that in some ways had this look or feeling of the advertising industry. I often say that I try to use the language of advertising to talk about things advertising couldn’t talk about responsibly. Since this show didn’t primarily feature advertising as the subject or as a tool, though the work functions [as advertising].

You can read the rest of the interview, "Untitled (Blackness): Q+A With Hank Willis Thomas," at the Art in America website.

 “There is so much more to the character than what we see on the surface,” said Biggers. “When I saw the black and white costume, I immediately thought of the dual nature of the yin and yang – two forces not in opposition but working in tandem with one another.”

Thomas is considered one of today’s most compelling emerging artists. Working with themes related to identity, history, and popular culture, he gained wide recognition with his highly provocative series B®ANDED, which addresses the commodification of African-American male identity by raising questions about visual culture and the power of logos. He received a BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and an MFA in photography, along with an MA in visual criticism, from California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

His 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). Thomas’ work is in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and ICP. He is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City.

A Los Angeles native working in New York City, Biggers creates artworks that integrate film, video, installation, sculpture, drawing, original music and performance. He intentionally complicates issues such as hip hop, Buddhism, politics, identity and art history in order to offer new perspectives and associations for established symbols.

About ICP

The International Center of Photography (ICP) is the world’s leading institution dedicated to the practice and understanding of photography and the reproduced image in all its forms. Through our exhibitions, educational programs, and community outreach, we offer an open forum for dialogue about the role images play in our culture. Since our founding, we have presented more than 500 exhibitions and offered thousands of classes, providing instruction at every level. ICP is a center where photographers and artists, students and scholars can create and interpret the world of the image within our comprehensive educational facilities and archive. Visit www.icp.org for more information.


Visit your local library for these resources:

Progeny: Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas
Deborah Willis, Hank Willis Thomas, and Kalia Brooks, (2009).

Pitch Blackness
Hank Willis Thomas, René De Guzman, and Robin D G Kelley, (2008).

Winter in America
Hank Willis Thomas, Kambui Olujimi, and Carla Williams, (2006).

Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery
Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, (2013).
This arresting book will initially attract readers with its album’s worth of photographs of black men and women in posed and unposed situations, taken between the 1850s and the 1930s. Questions will automatically arise. What is the story behind each photograph? Who is the person? What exactly was the occasion for taking the photograph? Once the viewer goes back to the book’s beginning and reads the text by a photography historian and a historian of slavery from start to finish, answers become apparent. Willis and Krauthamer, with knowledge and a discerning eye, place the photos in a new and greatly informative context, all in their successful effort to demonstrate the emancipation process through photographs. Their very learned analysis brings to the reader many significant glimpses into the true nature of black people’s evolving status during the late slavery period, during emancipation itself, and during the often confusing days of their first taste of freedom.
— Excerpt of review by Brad Hooper first published February 1, 2013 (Booklist).

Black: a Celebration of a Culture
Deborah Willis, (2004).

Reflections in Black: a History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present
Deborah Willis, (2000).

The Family of Black America
Michael H Cottman, Deborah Willis, and Linda Tarrant-Reid, (1996).

Million Man March
Michael H Cottman and Deborah Willis, (1995).

Image in this article is copyrighted:

Untitled from the Wayfarer series, 2012. © Hank Willis Thomas


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