Hank Willis Thomas

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Christopher Sims: Absolute No Return, 2008, Light-jet prink

Hank Willis Thomas is selling something. This is clearly evidenced in the works included in Pitch Blackness, his second solo exhibition currently on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. Thomas, who is well versed in undermining the loaded visual language of the advertising media–think Air Jordan meets the Hottentot Venus–relies here once again on visual trickery and deftly executed slight of hand in distilling key iconic media imagery.

Thomas is at his strongest in rendering works that not only conflate, but also leave room for interpretation. Absolut No Return, (2008) a digital photographic manipulation, skillfully invokes the iconic Vodka ad campaign by marrying the all-too-familiar spirits bottle silhouette with a photograph that invokes, perhaps, the solemn first-person view of an African American slave peering out of the window of a crumbling “port factory” – a way station for slaves before their forced exodus on the Middle Passage to the New World. At the same time, the seascape pictured offers an ironic riff on the all too familiar “Come to Jamaica and Feel All Right!” suite of ads.

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Christopher Sims: I Am A Man, 2008, Liquitex on canvas

I Am A Man, (2008), a seductive suite of twenty works on canvas, pays homage to Ernest C. Withers’ photograph of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A strong case for the power of reductive minimalism, scaling back the psychological distance between the minority consumer and luxury products, the work ingeniously expands the scope of the “I AM A MAN” placards carried by the strikers by reordering the text to read, “I AM THE MAN”, “AM I A MAN” and ultimately “I AM HUMAN”.

As is the case with most sophisticated forms of media outreach, I prefer to feel as if I am somehow involved in the process (that I’m in on the secret). It is only when Thomas leaves room for the viewer to enter the work that he succeeds in hitting his target demographic.

Hank Willis Thomas has exhibited his work nationally at venues such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA. He was included in the recent exhibition, “After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy”, at the High Museum, Atlanta, GA; in Frequency at The Studio Museum in Harlem in 2005; and in the 2006 California Biennial at The Orange County Museum of Art. His work is featured in several public collections including the Studio Museum in Harlem, the International Center of Photography in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.

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