Hank Willis Thomas's New Show Literally Shines a Light on Whitewashed Histories
The works at Jack Shainman Gallery require light-equipped glasses or a camera flash to reveal the whole image.
What We Ask Is Simple, Hank Willis Thomas’s new show at Jack Shainman Gallery, is anything but straightforward. Mining the iconography of 20th-century protest, this body of work reflects the realities of the present as much as it looks to the past.
When I visited Shainman’s two Chelsea spaces, I was encouraged at the front desk to pick up a pair of clear safety glasses equipped with lights, and to set my phone for flash photography. The 20th street space opens with a text applied to mirror reading “What You See Here/What You Do Here/What You Hear Here/What You Leave Here/Let it Stay Here.” The words are lifted from a sign in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a community secretly built by the Manhattan Project to refine uranium for the atomic bombs later used by President Truman to indiscriminately murder over 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it’s a text also frequently read at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to establish a “safe place” for those in recovery. The statement introduces a sense of mysterious conspiracy as much as it offers an indictment of the viewer staring down their own reflection.
The exhibition is dark in more ways than one, but there’s literally just enough illumination to distinguish the images on the walls. Getting close exposes their interactivity—when lit by the glasses at certain angles, or by your camera’s flash, they reveal hidden, second images. Screen-printed onto retro-reflective vinyl and mounted on an aluminum composite material, these works have the shimmering indeterminacy of a lenticular print. In All Deliberate Speed, you see an American flag, sideways, cropped against a plain white background; shining your light reveals that this is Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a white teenager attempting to impale civil rights activist and lawyer Joseph Rakes with the tip of the flag pole, shot at a 1976 Boston protest for school desegregation.
All of the screen-printed photographs depict protests and direct actions of 20th century social movements: South African apartheid, the American Indian Movement, women’s suffrage, and the American civil rights movement, among others. Some of them appear more conventionally photographic while others could be paintings, the images obscured by the silk-screening process. There are also several mirrored works in addition to the opening text; in one wall-sized piece, a young woman is hauled away from a protest by two police officers, the enormous image lit by a single bulb is reflected onto the gallery’s floor. A stainless steel sculpture, Strike, reproduces the main action from a 1935 drawing by artist Louis Lozowick, in which an African American worker resists a strike breaker’s truncheon by grabbing the other man’s wrist.
But despite their historical significance, viewers might struggle to identify each image’s source. In an interview at the gallery, Thomas himself noted his own unfamiliarity with many of them prior to the inception of this project. Thumbnails have been compiled into a reference list accompanied by a brief didactic text, so that viewers can dig a little deeper into their context; still, the contrast between the legibility of the images as protest photography against our own unfamiliarity with each scene underscores the way these events are comprehended en masse by society. Thomas provides a counterpoint, isolating and revealing the images, piece by piece.
This desire for sincere engagement with these histories explains Thomas’s use of reflection—what could be seen as a gimmick instead breaks the fourth wall, implicating us in these historic scenes, forcing us to complete them. In some instances, he reveals the whitewashing of history by literally erasing context, selectively cropping the image, covering part of the scene in a white made transparent only when light is applied to reveal the image underneath.
Yet this body of work subverts easy consumption as much as it solicits participation. It is impossible to capture the retro-reflective works with just one image due to their unique properties, and any attempt at a mirror selfie will render the figure in silhouette. Thomas noted that the rise in digital photography and the proliferation of images on social media has left him feeling alienated from the artistry and expertise photography once required. The works’ beauty, perhaps a happy product of Thomas’s enjoyment of the process, is equally an indictment of the superficiality that abounds in today’s disposable and overexposed visual culture. The obfuscation of these poignant images is an ironic gesture that throws our own selective processing back at us, refusing an easy reading.
One of the more experimental works at 24th street at first appears to be a Richter-esque swipe in oranges, yellows, and reds, like a loose cross-section of the planet Saturn. Illuminated, it reveals an image from the American Indian Movement where Oglala Lakota reclaimed Wounded Knee, demanding the impeachment of corrupt Tribal President Richard Wilson and protesting the US government’s failures to fulfill treaty promises.
Thomas’s works offer provocations more often than answers. Their power comes from their ambiguity, recontextualizing familiar images to produce something new. By implication rather than explication, he is able to subvert the immediacy of images and draw out their complexity. But the efficacy of this power is suspect, especially given how little has changed since the end of the 20th century. Walking through the spaces, Gil Scott Heron’s Comment #1 comes to mind, his closing obloquy echoing Thomas: “Who will survive in America…?”
What We Ask Is Simple is on view at Jack Shainman Gallery through May 12.