All Things Being Equal...
Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Branded Head, 2003, from the series Branded, Chromogenic print, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York © Hank Willis Thomas.
A Review of All Things Being Equal... by Hank Willis Thomas
on view at the Portland Art Museum, October 12, 2019 – January 12, 2020
by Kyle Cohlmia
All Things Being Equal... by Brooklyn-based artist Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) is not your average solo exhibition. What is unique about this show, which recently opened at the Portland Art Museum, is that it is Thomas’ first ever survey exhibition, including nearly 100 works from his early photography and more recent installations. The works in All Things Being Equal... are as poignant as they are playful and as powerful as they are approachable, covering subjects related to professional sports, consumerism, racism, and contemporary politics. Drawing on both popular culture and canonical art history, this survey of works can potentially stimulate spectators to laugh, cry, feel discouraged, and hopeful all in one visit.
There are many standouts in All Things Being Equal.... including the first piece in the exhibit, 14,719 (2018), a two-story high installation of blue, vertically hung banners in concentric circles embellished with embroidered white stars representing 14,719 individuals killed by gun violence in the United States, and specifically, a reference to the tragic murder of Thomas’ cousin Songha Thomas Willis who was robbed and killed at gunpoint in February of 2000. This piece, setting the tone for the exhibit, leads visitors upstairs to more of Thomas’ work and, specifically to his rendition of Guernica (2016), a patch-work quilt, stitched from iconic NBA jerseys that represents exact imagery from Picasso’s epochal mural. Back downstairs, in the final room of the exhibit, using cell phones or light-up glass provided by the museum, visitors can interact with many of Thomas’ large-scale photo media works that represent violence imposed on African Americans in the U.S.
While standouts such as these may remain most memorable for their grandeur, noticeable imagery or interactive components, Thomas’ more subtle pieces also speak volumes. Specifically, Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America (2008) and A Century of White Women (2015), two series of photographs that appropriate branded advertisements of African Americans and white women by removing the logos to display only the subjects, showcase an honest look at the cultural stereotypes we’ve mythologized over the past decade. A nod to Roland Barthes, French theorist who called advertisements the most “intentional” of all images, these photographic series, at first glance, may not feel as powerful as the previous work mentioned; however, the unbranded imagery hung side-by-side intends to heighten our awareness to critical issues such as race relations, racial stereotyping, ideal femininity and privilege. Of these works, Thomas states, “they reflect our hopes and dreams at a particular time. You can track our racism or our patriarchy or our consumerism through these images.”
All Things Being Equal... is undoubtably worth seeing and seeing again. Somehow, through both blatant and subtle imagery, Thomas has created a survey of artwork that is, as his title suggests, equal..., in that each of his pieces demonstrate empathy with a sense of urgency for us to contemplate the damaging legacies of our past, our current systems of oppression and how we can become activists manifesting a more just future. As one of the most prolific contemporary artists of our time, Hank Willis Thomas and his multi-decade survey of artwork is currently available to view, right at our doorstep. See it more than once, and find your favorite pieces, whose messages speak to all things being equal.