Exhibition Review: What Hank Willis Thomas Asks is Simple
By Emma Coyle
It is impossible to walk through the Jack Shainman Gallery without catching a glimpse of yourself or other people investigating Hank Willis Thomas’s new solo exhibit, What We Ask Is Simple, as they are literally reflected in his work. This new exhibit focuses on placing the viewer directly in the middle of the work using silvered glass mirrors combined with archival news images “of a hard-fought, perennial battle for equality”. His current show is Thomas’s sixth solo exhibit at the Jack Shainman Gallery, and there is definitely a reason that they keep coming back to this 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship award winner. It is well worth exploring the exhibit in these last few days before it closes on May 12th.
There is a physicality to Thomas’s retroreflective works in that initial moment of reflection captured as each person steps up to the appropriated archival footage. Swiftly, the viewer takes on the mantle of photographer to expose the concealed image, with their camera flash blending their relationship to each photograph. As the work is approached, there is an abstract quality to the unaffected images. Streaky white lines on a black background or images of lone figures hold a peaceful quality.
Every photograph is perceived in two moments; before and after engaging with it. When the context of the image is revealed, its initial impression is contrasted with the violent conflict that was previously hidden. Equally alluring are the vibrant colors that are now exposed. Rich yellows and reds appear where before there was a faded quality inline with the found images used. As they walk through the gallery, each individual is left with the knowledge of how they can affect a moment, a scene, or events destined to become historical. What is our role in these moments? To merely view or to go forth and engage? It is the same question confronted in the moments of conflict that Thomas has spent his career exploring.
The influence of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Mirror Paintings on Thomas’s silvered mirrors is apparent in both the use of reflection and the clear bend towards activism that centers the audience in the work. Thomas blends his “focus on framing and context” with the idea that spectatorship can have the agency to enact change on the environment it observes. The mirrors are hung at eye level, creating an intimacy between the subject and the viewer. That intimacy is paramount as frames containing images of people seem life-size, reachable, touchable, people that could be spoken with. The only difference between them and the audience is the quality of the image. Aged and often in a limited color palate, whereas those wandering the gallery bring multihued modernity into the image with their reflection. Bold font printed on a mirror says “what you see here what you do here what you hear here when you leave here let it stay here” but it is impossible to leave this exhibition’s impact behind.
The theme of reflection is inescapable, and it’s a theme that moves from the physical to the introspective, and it’s a theme that can also be seen in Willis’s previous work including his recent 2017 exhibitions Blind Memory and Freedom isn’t Always Beautiful at the Savanna College of Art and Design Museum of Art. Personal reflection in the face of conflict is a key element to the experience, which continues Thomas’s investigation of social activism and the tumultuous history of black twentieth century protest.