Thomas’s engagement with the politics of identity, history, the history of art, and popular culture is particularly apropos in today’s political climate. His newest body of work—currently on view at both locations of Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea—somehow manages the feat of being both extremely thoughtful, and intrinsically Instagram-ready. It’s the rare show you have to see with your own eyes, and special glasses, and your phone, with none of those entirely taking precedence.
Last week, The Standard sat down with the artist at The Standard, High Line to talk about his new body of work, as well as an installation slated for debut at this week’s Frieze New York art fair. All of these projects reflect a rigorously researched, intensely considered artistic practice committed to exploring the intersections of visual arts, civil rights, and activism.
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THE STANDARD: While primarily based on appropriated archival imagery from 20th century protests worldwide, What We Ask Is Simple is very much a mixed media show. Can you elaborate on the techniques you use?
HANK WILLIS THOMAS: Sure, the show has three main materials: stainless steel sculpture, retroreflective prints, and mirrored glass. In each of the processes, the approach to making the work was pretty uncommon. The sculpture was 3D scanned, router cut, digitally printed, casted, and printed in stainless steel. It's based off a lithograph called Strike Scene (1935) by Louis Lozowick which I saw in the Whitney Museum collection protest show that is currently up. I use selectively toned glass to make mirrors that have photographs in them or that we mount images behind. The goal is to have the viewer both look at the work and through the work at the same time and see their own reflections. The whole show is a huge revelation because these are materials I've been working with in various ways over an extended period of time, but this is the first time I've been able to make a show around it.
I think “ways of looking” is a good way to put it. The work in the show is really about how we approach looking at specific images or objects and trying to encourage the viewer to be hyperaware of their agency, but also of their unique perspective. Some of the work can only be seen if there is a light mounted to your head, or if you're taking a flash photograph. Even still, moving around them changes your perspective. I think there is a metaphor for history and that sometimes we need to shine light on certain things to see them in a new way or to remember them. A lot of the images that are used and the people in them are not the people who normally get the light shined on them; and so it's really a reminder for myself, as well as for the viewers, to look deeper and not just for what’s visible on the face reading.
What is the significance in obscuring the viewing experience in this way?
There is an elusiveness. What you see with the glasses is not completely the image and what you see without the glasses is not completely the image. It's like having two truths exist in the same space but not being visible at the same time. I thought about opacity in the fact that the printing process on the retroreflective is really about what light gets shined through when you shine your light on it from your perspective. It reflects back where the light is allowed to shine. There’s a really interesting metaphor in physics for this kind of research and the searching I hope many of the viewers who go see the show have. We often go to a show and just take a picture and don't look at the work. In this show, if someone does that, they're walking away with something different than what they saw with their eyes and so they have to reconcile that. People sometimes say, “Oh, can you send me pictures” or “I saw it online.” Well, you didn't see it because I was there and even I didn't really see it, but I made it. I have revelations in looking at the work all the time.
One of the challenges I've always had with archival images is that if it's a news photograph or something that we've seen as a “document,” there's an expiration date on the relevance. We put them in boxes and never look at them again. When you call something “art,” it allows people to engage it differently because art hopefully—well, definitely—will outlive us but it has this perennial sense of worth and value. When you take images that are seen as current events and easily dispersed and use the language of art history and lauded artists to frame them differently, I hope it gives these images new life. Abstraction is one of the tools that allows people to be drawn into it and you might see something on the surface and not see any image but under certain light and under certain circumstances there is more to it.
I went to high school in the Washington DC area and on the National Mall there’s the Jefferson Memorial; there’s the Lincoln Memorial; there’s the Vietnam War Memorial, the World War II Memorial; there’s the Korean War Memorial. There are memorials all over the country for the civil war, but there is no memorial for the victims of gun violence in this country. The fact that more people have been killed in the past 15 years here than were killed in all of the wars since World War II is scary. And all these soldiers who gave their lives for this country are going to be memorialized, and rightfully so. But, what about the others? How do we memorialize them? This is something that is not going to change over night and it’s not a fixed story, so maybe that’s why we don’t have 20/20 vision… And then there’s the flag, the stars and bars. I’ve looked at the bars part for a long time. We imprison more people than anyone else in the world. I also feel the need to look at the stars and these people are like fallen stars. My cousin was a victim of gun violence. Almost all of my work is really about trying to reconcile how, in this great country, we continue to allow things that are so antithetical to our values to exist.
Future generations will define and try to understand us by the art that we make and celebrate, so it is critical to be part of that conversation, if one can, but also to redefine what we call art. So I created Four Freedoms with my friend Eric Gottesman which started off as a political action committee [PAC]. What happens when a political organization is made in the interest of a creative practice and art? Can we blur the lines between art and politics so that we don’t just have uncreative people building and shaping our nation? What does it mean to make space for people who you might like but don’t agree with, or people you don’t like but do agree with and, hopefully, have them approach you with that same generosity, in the spirit of creative citizenship and patriotism?