The idea is so ingenious, it almost seems obvious: take advertisements and remove the text that makes them so, leaving only a string of images behind. This was the process that Hank Willis Thomas undertook for Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008, a series of appropriated ads that covers the period between the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the election of Barack Obama, with one ad representing each year. Shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 2010–11, Thomas’s images laid bare looked alternately bizarre, sinister, and deeply surreal.
The same holds true of the images in his newest series, Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915–2015, currently on view at Jack Shainman Gallery. As with the previous body of work, Thomas has once again stripped advertisements of their advertising, this time turning his attention to the ways in which corporations market their products to white women — and in turn market white women as products themselves. He has again chosen one image per year of the period in question, and the images are arranged as a timeline, split nearly in half between Jack Shainman’s two Chelsea spaces.
Allow me to spare you the suspense (spoiler alert!): it’s not clear if we white women start off or end the century in a better place. In 1915, Thomas’s chosen ad shows a white woman sitting down to eat with, presumably, her husband (who looks like a caricature of Robin Hood or a knight). She is dressed well enough, doted on by a parrot, and doesn’t appear — to modern eyes, at least — so much oppressed as like an oppressor, considering the grinning black man in an all-white cook’s outfit and polka-dotted bow tie who serves her. In 2015, meanwhile, there are no men in sight — which would be great if it weren’t so oppressively clear that they (the straight ones) are both the makers of and the intended audience for a picture in which a phalanx of white women “cross the Delaware” (yes, after Washington) while wearing skimpy bikinis and stilettos and striking playmate poses against a red pickup truck. I am a white woman. I see the marketing every day. And still this image makes me want to punch something.
What’s simultaneously most appealing and depressing about this latest edition of Unbranded is the way it gives us a sense of history as a series of waves or cycles, rather than that long arc we so like to imagine. 1920 was the first year that women were able to vote in this country, and Thomas’s ad shows a sensibly dressed white woman behind the wheel of a car; the following year she’s prettily dressed, done up, and a little sad, the object of a male gaze and a bizarre comparison with an Ancient Egyptian goddess. In 1944 and ’45, ads show white women joining the war efforts both at home and abroad — but by 1946 she’s back to wearing dolls’ clothes and teaching her daughter (who’s dressed the same) how to vacuum (‘you just move it around and it sucks up dirt!,’ says the voice in my head).
The schizophrenia persists through the second half of the series: in 1967, just as the women’s liberation movement was heating up, Thomas’s ad shows a deeply uncomfortable scene of a woman in a bra and underwear being handled by five men. (It’s actually an ad for pants, and Thomas says he was “uneasy” about using it.) As the years pass, the images show signs of progress — a white woman bodybuilder, another leaving for work while her husband stays home with the kids — interspersed with a headache-inducing number of scenes of white women as sex objects — in bathing suits, naked, inside frying pans and martini glasses!
That advertisers traffic in sexist and racist stereotypes is not, admittedly, the deepest of revelations. And there may be, for some viewers, a quality of obviousness to the exhibition, particularly in the parts with which your own identity most closely aligns (I found the earlier half of the show, at the 24th Street space, far more engaging for this reason). But knowing of something’s existence doesn’t mean you’ve examined it, and that’s precisely what Thomas is encouraging us to do. It’s notable that his focus differs from that of other artists known for appropriating ads — he doesn’t treat these images as artistic raw material (John Baldessari) or use them to raise questions about authorship (Richard Prince); rather, he finds, alters, and then carefully re-presents them, still as ads, as a means of unearthing the politics hidden in a field where they’re meant to stay buried. Advertisements bombard us from nearly every space and medium imaginable these days; they’re images we see every day but rarely look at. Thomas is doing the necessary work of pointing out just how insidious that white noise can be.
Hank Willis Thomas, Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915–2010 continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (524 West 24th Street and 513 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 23.