Hank Willis Thomas: What We Ask Is Simple at Jack Shainman Gallery

Art Scene

Hank Willis Thomas: What We Ask Is Simple at Jack Shainman Gallery

Examining parallels in protest and civic unrest across continents, artist Hank Willis Thomas revisits a passion for image making in the interactive exhibition What We Ask Is Simple at Jack Shainman Gallery. Looking to histories of protest on the continents of Africa, North America, and Europe, Thomas engages both time and space in his newest body of work.

Power to the People / I'm too Young to Vote PHotograph

Power to the People / I’m too Young to Vote (black and gold), 2018 screenprint on retroreflective vinyl, mounted on Dibond 24 x 30 inches, 24 7/8 x 30 7/8 x 1 3/4 inches (framed)

In terms of content, his use of appropriated archival images teases out histories of activism for young audiences, while simultaneously honoring the work of past generations. In terms of materials, his experimentation with new or unusual photographic techniques requires the participation of viewers within the gallery space. As a result, a marriage of film-based, dark room photography and technological play, popular in the digital age, is at work in the exhibition experience.

Freedom a Long Time Overdue, 2018 screenprint

Freedom a Long Time Overdue, 2018, screenprint on retroreflective vinyl, mounted on Dibond 28 x 57 inches, 29 x 59 1/4 x 1 3/4 inches (framed)

Retroreflective works and silvered glass mirrors make up the majority of the work on view. The retroreflective pieces are activated by flash photography or eyeglasses with flashlights (which were provided on opening night). Each image activation reveals an archival image, encouraging a deeper engagement with the work as viewers become image makers within the process of looking. A collaboration with Thomas, across time, in a sense, takes place. This collaborative experience with the artist, also suggests the collaborative nature of protest across decades, centuries or continents. This process also activates the title of Thomas’ exhibition, What We Ask Is Simple, by illuminating who the “We” is as viewers walk through the exhibition. “We” is all of us, across race and gender, advocating for basic human rights.

Wounded Knee, 2018, screenprint

Wounded Knee, 2018, screenprint on retroreflective vinyl, mounted on Dibond, 34 1/2 x 48 1/2 inches, 35 x 49 x 1 3/4 inches (framed)

Of note is Thomas’ diverse image selection, which may, on first glance, bring to mind the American Indian Movement or recent protests at Standing Rock, labor activist Cesar Chavez, Anti-war activism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement, Veterans Rights and more. His silvered glass mirror works also feature archival images, but present a different experience. The mirrored nature of the images allows for both reflection and participation on the part of the viewer – again offering an interaction across time and space. While contemplating the meaning and content of an image, a viewer is also placed into a historical moment.

Opening night photo by Anders Jones

Opening night. Photo by Anders Jones

The dimly lit gallery space, required for activation of some of the images, as well as the participatory nature of the exhibition, undoubtedly will evoke some sort of emotion in viewers.