PORTLAND, Ore. — The night I went to see Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… I found the Portland Art Museum flooded with people museums often hope to draw in: a visibly diverse, casually fashionable set of 20- and 30-somethings — a group I rarely encountered at PAM on past visits from Seattle. They brought a palatable excitement to the first mid-career survey of the Brooklyn-based artist Hank Willis Thomas, who rose to prominence in the early 2000s through his conceptual photography and has become increasingly public-facing in his work.
I experienced a marked shift from the exhibition’s buzzy atmosphere inside a darkened room adjacent to the exhibition’s entrance, where projected distortions of an animated Confederate flag flashed across a screen. Thomas’s deeply layered installation “Black Righteous Space” (2012) filtered the flag through the red, black, and green colors of the Black Power Movement, its pulsating, kaleidoscopic patterns controlled by a playlist of songs, speeches, and dialogue by over 50 Black speakers and performers, ranging from James Baldwin to Kanye West. Standing before the screen was a microphone — an invitation for words and disruptions from viewers during intermittent pauses between recordings.
I watched visitors read the label, settle into chairs, whisper among themselves. But, other than a man who approached the mic and flashed a peace sign for a photo, no one took up the artist’s invitation to participate. I wondered how much this had to do with being in Portland. As the exhibition’s co-curator Julia Dolan articulated, “In terms of Oregon’s complicated history with race and, in particular, with Blackness and the exclusionary laws that were written into the constitution… this is an ideal city for the types of messages Thomas calls to in his work.” In light of this, I wondered if the interactions might have differed when this piece was shown somewhere associated with political activism like San Francisco, or in Norfolk, Virginia, where the work was previously on view and opened two days after the Charleston church massacre. Were people there more willing to take ownership of the space Thomas opened for us?
Moving through the thematically arranged presentation of over 90 works, including photographs, videos, installations, sculptures, and other conceptual pieces, I found myself returning to the evolving nature of space that Thomas creates for his viewer — the fluctuations in how much room he withholds or allots for us to participate and generate our own meaning within his work. At one end of the spectrum were the Branded photographs, a series in which he adapts commercial ads to question their motivations and histories. These pieces illuminate what exhibition co-curators Dolan and Sara Krajewski told me about their approach to interpretation in the exhibition: “The work does the work.” Krajewski elaborated, “Thomas’s work is accessible because the visual system he’s calling upon is one accessed by people in their daily lives.” Among the most moving of these is Thomas’s iconic “Branded Head” (2003), a glossy, oversized, black-and-white photograph in which a Nike swoosh brands the scalp of a faceless African American man — an image that tears apart the familiar language of advertising and seamlessly reconstructs it in a way that attunes our eye to its previously invisible power dynamics between the sports industry, Black athletes, the history of slavery, and us, as image consumers. But, I also found myself breezing through some Branded images because their message felt so clear, there was no “work” — no active engagement — required of me beyond a passive consumption.
When I asked Thomas about his work’s relationship with the viewer, he said, “I think it’s become more intentional for me to try to encourage and implicate the viewer in the making of the work. Viewer participation is what gives work value and credibility.” This intention came through clearly in Thomas’s more recent Retroflectives series, for which archival photographs are reproduced as screen prints coated in a vinyl surface of light-reflecting glass beads the artist uses to obscure the original images; their full contents can only be seen as the viewer illuminates them, typically by taking flash photo. The experience is startlingly affective in works like “What happened on that day really set me on a path (red and blue)” (2018), which appears to depict a man and young woman walking among a crowd. However, my flash exposed Douglas Martin’s photograph of Dorothy Counts on her way to a previously all-white high school in 1957 and the mob of angry white men surrounding her — and a potent feeling of naivete for ever believing the image existed without them.
Cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib once wrote, “Nina Simone opens her mouth and an entire history is built before us, where there is nowhere for anyone to hide from the truth as she has lived it.” These words speak to Thomas’s work, as it builds entire histories before us; they also highlight the risk of opening more space for the viewer. When we have more opportunity to interact with art on our own terms, there are more places to hide from its difficult truths, particularly viewers who have the privilege to do so.
In the simplest terms, anyone who doesn’t illuminate the Retroflective images won’t experience the details that complete them. But this concern became more complicated when I stood in a room with Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915–2015, a series in which Thomas removed the texts of advertisements targeted to white women. The selection of 14 photos included from the series of 100 largely focuses on “the persistent association of white femininity with motherhood and domesticity, fair-skinned beauty, rosy youthfulness, and sexual availability,” as the text articulated. Yet, a darker, more nuanced tension boils beneath their surfaces — particularly when considered in tandem with another gallery featuring Thomas’s Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968-2008, for which he applied the same treatment to ads targeting African Americans.
Situated in connected but separate galleries, I had the urge to bring the two series together. Speaking to the history behind them, Thomas said to me, “There was a parallel women’s rights movement happening at the same time as the civil rights movement. They were not completely segregated but they definitely were not as in alignment as they could have been.” I wanted to physically confront this relationship also fleetingly touched upon in a label for “Give your daughter a daughter” (1971/2015), an uncanny image of a white woman, young girl, and her doll smiling from a rattan throne chair — a cultural symbol associated with Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton. The label, written by Ella Ray, the Kress Interpretative Fellow for the exhibition, notes, “…the possession of this visual space at the peak of the Black Power movement marks white women’s role as disruptors of Black Liberation.”
This struck me as a particularly important moment of the exhibition for the majority-white city of Portland, when the more difficult, less discussed questions of white women’s roles as both oppressors and tools of oppression could be brought to the fore. Yet, with the exception of Ray’s label, this issue was largely left as a gap for viewers to bridge on their own. I would like to think that some people grabbed the microphone after I left that night, that some implicated themselves in making the deeper, harder connections. Those who did are certain to have left All Things Being Equal… taking to heart Thomas’s provocation: “The most revolutionary thing a person can do is be open to change.”
Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… continues at the Portland Art Museum through January 12, 2020. The exhibition will travel to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (February 8–April 20, 2020) and Cincinnati Art Museum (July 10–October 11, 2020).