Hank Willis Thomas’s What We Ask is Simple, at Jack Shainman Gallery, is a graphic montage of 20th century plight and redemption. Using iconic imagery of modern protest with an advanced photographic method, these works become fully perceivable in form and content while illuminated. Each viewer is nudged to participate in this collective exposure. The entirety of the production, its recurring pull of granular memory, operates like an antique projection, clicking through filmy capsules with pulsing light. Predicated on thorough theoretical research and a deep investigation into archival material, Thomas’s conceptual process relies substantially on the collection of both the iconic and the transient in literary and photographic relics of mass culture.
In the first encounter with the exhibition, we are met with a sign, both an enabling incentive to proceed and directive to heed with caution. Adhered against a mirror, bold capitals lyrics read “What You See Here/What You Do Here/What You Hear Here/What You Leave Here/Let it Stay Here.” Thomas’s poetic introduction sets the course of our procession like a haunting title sequence – both a warning and a requiem. Thomas’s attention to language is a key fixture in the inquiring and scrutinizing nature of his politically charged works. This cryptic text is appropriated from a sign located at an American uranium processing site, covertly directed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Manhattan projects, preceding the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. This piece, gesturing at the foreboding essence of its text’s signal, acts as both an unnerving memory of the past, as well as a provocation towards an inevitable outcome. The message’s direction to the object “you” instructs our movements, gaze and reading in collective consciousness beneath a surveilling watch. Resounding with the weight of official address, the tone of the phrase cementing, we are at once accused and absolved of the depictions to follow and the histories they signify.
Signs and signifiers, iconography and triggers of collective memory are the subjects of Thomas’s historical interrogation. In a room barely lit, veiled negatives sit against the wall and flicker into cohesion at the whim of moving glint. Walking through, the composites of both violence and repose gradually unfold and the duplicity of each picture begins to reveal itself. With these light sensitive surfaces, external inflections are vaguely mirrored, and through the camera’s mechanization the audience is presented to itself. Thomas’s approach in this set of works confronts the placation of modern spectatorship and asks the viewer to consider the continuity of cross-cultural conflict as a binding agent of consciousness through the past century.
Thomas’s use of reflection serves as an indictment not only of the trauma remembered of the 20th century, but also in the resulting suppression of contextual circumstance particular to these moments throughout historical dialogue. The cunning in this medium of the retro-reflective, is that it exists both in the material and the metaphysical experience. The purpose of this sheeting is to permit visibility in light of an approaching figure. We the figures moving forth, are not entitled to selective looking, we move with signs to proceed when prompted. These visual limitations, acutely employed, allow us access only at controlled points of focus, in moments when we are still. With this, Thomas confronts the consumptive impulse, challenging our image addiction and through his shifted control we roam under a new jurisdiction of visual construction.
With foregrounding subjects isolated from their backgrounds, the absence of context becomes a main player. One image dated 1936 of a German man with arms supposedly crossed, hardly discernable in a large crowd, shows him refusing to gesture amid a mass salute to the unseen Adolf Hitler. In another work, young black American students proceed forth to school through the degrading speech of white protesters. Those withstanding are all that are revealed to us at first, and secondarily their vehement surroundings are delivered to us moments after our inquisitive looking. These subjects embody the puncture of resistance in a siege of conflicting externalities. With the charge of international and local division, confluence of speech is perhaps the exhibition’s primary interest.
Freedom from Soweto (2018) depicts the supplication of a South African teenager standing with arms raised in a demonstration during the country’s 1976 student resistance known as the Soweto uprising. Closer light unfolds this scene in filmic awe and with a sharpening realization, the threat of the crowd ferments in exposure. Halted in a brutal scene, against armed force and seething dogs, this image embodies the ruthlessness with which nearly 20,000 students were met by police. A response to the government’s installation of Afrikaans and English method and language in the local school system, the students fought against the further inculcation of colonization’s force and subsequent oppression of native speak. Fully charged in signification of trauma, this work remembers a dark relic of apartheid’s currency in the country’s history and reminds us of its repeated resemblance in globally recognized contemporaneous images.
Thomas’s indictment of the fast and disposable culture of digital media serves as the foundation for his inquiry into the capacity of photography’s semiotic system. The artist’s discovery of the sophisticated process of silvering and half-tone screen printing allows the works to linger between photography and film. Removing the subjects from and delivering them back to their signified context, his technique fractures the limitations of the photograph’s automation. These images gesture beyond their operation as reproductions of the depicted reality. The retroreflective veil through which the audience is asked to consider these works allows a complete reframing of the consumptive experience of images. Unraveling and vacillating, contingent on spectator position and light’s elucidation, these visual events slip cyclically through the room’s collective montage. Each picture mimics hallucination, a deviation from the conditioned narrative and emphasizes the plastic nature of its resonating memory.
Angelica Villa is New York City Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Villa is also an Appraisals Assistant at Christie’s and currently a Master’s student at New York University.