Review of Hank Willis Thomas’s “What We Ask Is Simple”

“I Tried to see a friendly face,”Hank Willis Thomas,  2018 (Before and after illumination)

“I Tried to see a friendly face,”Hank Willis Thomas,  2018 (Before and after illumination)

Hank Willis Thomas’s “What We Ask Is Simple” Is a Stunning Interrogation of Visual Culture. An anxiety has steadily grown alongside the maturing of visual culture in late-capitalist societies over how an image can not only stand out from the countless others competing for attention across advertising, entertainment, and art but how it can also break loose of the cultural baggage that comes with its content. This second concern centers around what the French call signifiance, which describes the extratextual meaning that can attach itself to language that allows a repurposing to take place. What was once an early sign of winter (“snowflake”) can become a descriptor for an entire generation and these linguistic mutations can now take root faster than ever thanks to the multimedia onslaught provided by social media and smartphones.


Much of twentieth century philosophy and critical theory looked to language, the words and meaning communicated through text and speech, and how meaning is constructed through the social and cultural bodies that congeal around us. It’s likely that the language visual that has at least gained parity with verbal language and yet for all our love of memes, we fail to grasp the biological mechanism at play that project learned and personal biases onto anything remotely reeking of familiarity (the adrenaline rush of many internet videos speaks to our primal need to be shocked).


Furthermore, it’s in a passive manner that we receive so many photographic and visual images, rarely suspecting that they may be symptoms or reflections of more insidious agendas and biases. In an interview with the Shainman Gallery, the artist Hank Willis Thomas notes how his mother’s own photographic practice sheds a considerable light on the historical reframing and revisionism he enacts:


My mother, Deborah Wills, she’s a photographer and photo historian, and realized in the history of photography, a lot of experiences of African-Americans had been cropped out out of that history. And she started to do her own research and discovered that African Americans had been taking photographs that were very different from mainstream photographs of African Americans since the invention of photography. And how that shifts our notion of history is what I was really interested in. 


You start to see that black men aren’t just ‘black men’ but hopefully as people. And each person, although they may be ascribed to a group or ascribes themselves to a group actually Is an individual and their perspective is that of an individual instead of speaking on behalf of a group. Because if you can show there’s asa much diversity within a group as there is outside it really challenges our historical notion of ‘identity.


It’s against this complex and emotionally charged backdrop of our blossoming culture centered around augmented and weaponized visual media that the artist Hank Willis a Thomas assembled the cunning show “What We Ask Is Simple” that was on display at Jack Shainman gallery’s 20th and 24th street locations through May 12. A photographer by training, his work has grown increasingly concerned with visual language and the way we can become numb to both the power of protest imagery and the more insidious messages propagated by seemingly of his work has focused on popular culture, often through the lens of marketing via advertisements. In his shows “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968-2008 and “Unbranded: A Century of White Women: 1915-2015” also shown at Shainman, he took one print ad from each of the years denoted in the article and removed the text to reveal the underlying assumptions about African Americans and white women and the constructed reality that corporations create around these subjects.


In “What We Ask,” he turns that interrogative lens onto photojournalism and the way in which we see, process, and taxonomize images of protests--the passion of the moment being subverted through the banality of its own mechanical reproduction. There has always been a performative dimension to protests. To amass in a large grouping of people is to perform their beliefs or ideology, to embody them collectively through sheer presence. The ‘68 French students protests was a performance of generational discontent and disobedience where the protests in Iran in the late seventies was a confused performance of oppositional ideologies untied by a shared dissatisfaction with the rule of the Shah resulting in deadly consequences.


Arriving at Shainman’s 20th street location, I was instantly struck by a sign on the wall designed to resemble the type of stark commands contained within a “No Smoking” sign. Seeing the silhouette of a flashing camera phone, I quickly assumed that due to the darkened gallery just beyond the precipice, we were being pre-emptively admonished from taking selfies and other smartphone-enabled behavior that has become rampant at museums and big ticket gallery shows. Rather it was instructions for viewing the art of display and that one would need to use the flash on their phone or camera to see the work. This made the eyewear equipped with lights make a lot more sense.


“What You See Here/What You Do Here/What You Hear Here/What You Leave Here/Let it Stay Here, 2018

“What You See Here/What You Do Here/What You Hear Here/What You Leave Here/Let it Stay Here, 2018

Across from that desk was a large mirror bearing the titular text of “What You See Here/What You Do Here/What You Hear Here/What You Leave Here/Let it Stay Here.” As I would later learn, these mood-setting words were in fact from a sign in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city that was an outgrowth of the Manhattan Project and used to refine the uranium that was used in the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan. They’re also the words spoken at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in order to establish a safe space.


Taken on their own terms that afternoon as I saw myself partially reflected back, the letters blocking out portions of my body, they cast an air of respectful secrecy and made me uncomfortable at the idea of posting the images I took on social media, feeling as if I was violating a sacred ritual. For ultimately, that’s the cumulative effect of “What We Ask For Is Simple” as each piece requires one to stop directly in front of it, the lights dimmed just enough to identify the content and composition. When you then snap a  flash picture or shine your camera light or glasses on the piece, a second, hidden image emerges that radically recontextualizes one’s first impression.


In “I Tried to See A friendly Face”  a lone black man with both arms up making peace signs is facing the snarling visage of a German Shepherd, clearly being held back with considerable strength. Once a light is shown upon the piece, the nonviolent reaction of the man is revealed to be all the most astounding given the pack of police in riot gear  surrounding him in a way that suggests the desire to attack at the slightest provocation, perceived or otherwise. The precarious, light-dependent pieces are have been onto retro-reflective vinyl and placed on an aluminum composite material, resulting in a mercurial sensitivity similar to a lenticular print. That the images can only be fully comprehended by stopping and taking a photo, often from different angle so as to reveal the different perceptions a single image can create as it changes depending on where the light hits it.


Unlit, “All Deliberate Speeds” shows an American flag against a grayscale background. When one turns their light upon it, the photograph of a white teen attempting to impale a man with the tip of a flagpole. The incongruity between before and after is affecting and upsetting, especially when one learns that it is actually Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Ryan Forman of the attempted assassination of civil rights activist and lawyer Joseph Rakes from the 1976 protests over school desegregation in Boston.


Each one of the screen-printed photographs deals with a different aspect of twentieth century social movements and the protests and political actions they inspired. Often they will have as a focal point a single defiant individual surrounded by police or people harassing them, as in “What happened on that day really set me on a path (red and blue).” Without a flash applied, the image of Ruby Bridges defying the crowds to attend public school echoed in deep red and blue tones, shadowy figures from history. Illuminated, the picture is crisply defined, the look of determination on her face while two fingers point out from behind to form devil’s horns becoming a source of inspiration.

“Wounded Knee (red and gold),” 2018

“Wounded Knee (red and gold),” 2018

Other works feel more abstract and reflect Thomas’s willingness to experiment with his process, adding a painterly quality to the photographic work. In “Wounded Knee (red and gold)” gestural stripes of orange create strata through which bodily forms are seen. But when seen under flash, we see the backside of a man, Oglala Lakota, holding a gun and a line of people with their arms around their head. It’s a scene from when the American Indian Movement captured Wounded Knee to demand that tribal chief Richard Wilson be impeached and declaiming the U.S. government’s failure in upholding treaty promises.


For those reading the above and thinking that this all involves an outsized historical knowledge that could even identify the different pictures’ and slogans origins, I would say you’re missing the point (or perhaps I haven’t articulated mine as clearly as I’d like). Thomas professed his own ignorance of many of the images in an interview with the gallery. By quite literally compelling viewers to halt and engage with a piece in a manner that some would say actually distances us from artworks--see the profusion of selfies taken at art museums--he creates a much-need intervention that forces one (or at least it did this viewer) to reflect on the mediated way in which we engage with the world and how that affects how we process photography.


A growing school of thought inspired by thinkers like Joseph Kitter are developing his ideas into one that presents media in a much more organic and omnipresent manner, seeing fire and water as some of our oldest forms of media (see John Durham Peters’ fantastic The Marvelous Cloud for a far more fleshed-out account of these ideas). But the fact remains, we ourselves are increasingly becoming a form of media. We may like to think of it as a one-sided process in a sense, taking images and video to share with others. But in addition to the comments those generate, we are transforming ourselves into conduits for the media that surrounds us everywhere we go, creating both a meta-amplification of movements and modern-day protests  and a sense of being infected by those images we are so quick to photograph (which, incidentally, lowers the value of the studies and work of artists like Thomas in making what was once a highly learned craft into something anyone can do.


With “What We Ask For Is Simple,” Thomas has created a body of work that makes no judgments about its subjects or viewers, but does place upon the latter group an onus to reconsider how they process imagines--and often neuter them through mental taxonimification. It’s a show that imbues these historical photographs with a new import, a vital energy that made for one of the most electrifying and affective galley shows I’ve experienced in a long time.