Hank Willis Thomas artwork exploring art history, America, guns

Jack Shainman Gallery presents “Hank Willis Thomas, Everything We See Hides Another Thing” across both Chelsea spaces. Comprising large-scale sculptures, mixed media textile works, and retroreflective prints, Hank Willis Thomas artwork continues an exploration of color theory, gestures of unity and strength, and the many ways we can look at a given historical moment or subject.

Thomas’ retroreflective works exhibit an interest in the repetition of mass-produced imagery and attention to the hand of the artist, referencing works by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

Trained as a photographer, Thomas has always focused on framing and context, and often appropriates archival images along with new or rarely used technical processes. Viewers are prompted to shift their position or use a tool to see a moment in its entirety. For instance, by activating his retroreflective work with a flash photograph, the viewer reveals the latent image, thereby stepping into the role of image maker. In both form and content, the works reveal multiple ways to look at a given historical moment or subject.

In these most recent retroreflective works, Hank Willis Thomas artwork draws aesthetic inspiration from artworks by Ellsworth Kelly and Roy Lichtenstein — artists who investigated color, shadow, perception, and popular culture — in addition to television test patterns and color bar configurations. Interested in a conceptual analysis of color theory, Thomas layers each composition with historical moments of protests and protestors in order to provide a greater commentary on what is left in and out of the frame, as well as the aesthetic information that can be derived from isolating parts of an image.

By obscuring elements of the image, and prompting the viewer to reveal them, Thomas makes Magritte’s concept of “a sort of conflict […], one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present” not just conceptual but experiential.

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.” ― René Magritte

Hank Willis Thomas: America

As Thomas continues his internal exploration of what it means to be an “American,” he has begun to view nation states as creative collaborations, and artists as the greatest problem solvers. The gesture-focused sculptures throughout the exhibition reference fleeting moments full of tension, ones in which we hold together while outside forces try to pull us apart. In the artist’s punctum series, inspired by Roland Barthes’ photographic theory of punctum, which refers to the detail in an image that pierces or stays with the viewer, Thomas uses sculpture to memorialize significant moments by isolating these gestures and investigating their ability to communicate ideas about individual and collective identity, ambition, perseverance, unity, and community.

When conceptualizing a large-scale monument to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, Thomas reflected upon the King legacy and one image—one idea—emerged above the others: Embrace. On multiple occasions, the nation witnessed the Kings embracing on the frontlines of a march.

A monument that captures this gesture declares that love is the ultimate weapon against injustice. In evoking the love shared between the Kings, their commitment to each other, their community and country, The Embrace is about what we share, not what sets us apart. By highlighting the act of embrace, this memorial shifts the emphasis from singular hero worship to collective action. In this exhibition, visitors will be able to see a domestic-sized version of the large-scale public monument, which will be unveiled in Boston Commons in January 2023.

These new Hank Willis Thomas artwork exhibitions can be seen at Jack Shainman Gallery September 8 – October 29, 2022.

Hank Willis Thomas: Guns

In line with the theme of memorialization, Hank Willis Thomas artwork has continued on the embroidered star flag series, Falling Stars. Each embroidered star represents a life lost by gun violence in the United States – 14,916 in 2018, 15,433 in 2019 and 20,923 in 2021. Gun violence is a perpetual issue in the United States, and for many Americans, a personal one. It was for Thomas when his best friend and cousin, Songha Willis, was murdered in Philadelphia in 2000.

The grimmest fact to face in the wake of Songha’s death was that it was not unique in this country. In 2018 Thomas said, “There have been more than 500,000 people [shot to death] in the United States since my family lost Songha. It is impossible to measure the magnitude and impact of this societal loss. While this installation is a memorial to the thousands of people who were killed by guns, it also pays homage to the countless loved ones who carry perpetual grief and trauma as unacknowledged victims of gun violence in America.”

Concurrently on view is The Gun Violence Memorial Project at The National Building Museum in Washington DC, through March 2023, which is a tribute to the thousands of lives lost to gun violence in America. Conceived by Thomas and MASS Design Group in partnership with gun violence prevention organizations Purpose Over Pain and Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund.

Additionally, “Another Justice: US is Them,” a group exhibition featuring and co-curated by Thomas, is on view at the Parrish Museum, Water Mill, New York, through November 6, 2022, presented by the artist and For Freedoms, the collective he co-founded in 2016. Their current initiative, A Citizens Guide to Healing, has served as a source of inspiration for this exhibition.

Deborah Willis

Also opening this fall is a large-scale collaborative artwork by Hank Willis Thomas and his mother and scholar, Dr. Deborah Willis, on the facade of the historic Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York. “The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship (Remember me),” includes found text reading, “Remember me,” from a 1866 vintage postcard discovered by Thomas at the Amistad Center of Art and Culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut, alongside images from Willis’ research and book of the same name.

The Church of Heavenly Rest, founded in 1865 by American Civil War veterans, was meant as a memorial to soldiers who had died in the American Civil War, and the artwork honors them and the many individuals who actively participate in society, but who are not often recognized or remembered.

Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 6pm.

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