Hank Willis Thomas: LOVERULES
Hank Willis Thomas, Kama Mama, Kama Binti (Like Mother, Like Daughter), 1971, 2008, digital chromogenic print, from Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968–2008. Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. Photo: Aaron Wessling Photography.

Hank Willis Thomas: LOVERULES

Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, WA - To Aug 4

by Susan Kunimatsu

Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist who works in sculpture, photography, painting, textiles and several printmaking media. In the past decade, he has executed over a dozen high-profile public art commissions. In 2023, his monumental bronze sculpture depicting Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, The Embrace, was installed on the Boston Common. Originally trained in photography, Thomas is fascinated with images and their impact on culture and identity. LOVERULES, anexhibition of 90 works from the collection
of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation,surveys the development of Thomas’ ideasover the past 20 years.

Thomas works in series, exploring an idea in multiple iterations over time. Much of his work is based on photographs and illustrations from advertising and news media. Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968–2008 takes ads targeting or representing Black Americans in the years between Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and Barack Obama’s election as president and removes the text and logos. The viewer’s only context is their own experience. Unbranded: A Century of White Women applies the same technique to ads targeting women, one from each of the years 1915 to 2015 (56 are in this show). Taken out of their original context, the images feel stereotypical and manipulative. Many harbor disturbing undertones of dominance and violence.

Sometimes Thomas reverses this technique. Text from cigarette ads sounds unappealing when printed alone, in stark black and white. The silhouette of a liquor bottle appears ominous when superimposed on photos referencing histories of slavery and violence against Black people.

“You and I are probably part of the first generation that grew up with logos being central to our identities,” Thomas said in an interview with curator Shamim M. Momin. “The actual mark actually meant something; it had a currency. It said something about us and what our values were and if we were valuable.” Thomas makes the literal abstract. By taking familiar works and images out of context, he forces us to reexamine our assumptions, to think more critically about the stories we believe.


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