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Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

01/08/2020 | Press release | Archived content

Who is Hank Willis Thomas?

'Hank Willis Thomas is making some of the most urgent, timely art in the US.' - The Art Newspaper

Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist who knows how to push boundaries and challenge ideas. For the past 25+ years, he has used photography, sculpture, and images from sports, advertising, and popular culture to make his viewer sit up, pay attention, and think about the implications of each artwork he creates. His collaborative art projects such as For Freedoms and The Truth Booth (which was featured in downtown Bentonville in 2016) have inspired conversations about social justice and civil rights, and although he has been working for several decades, he's just getting started.

Watch this video of Thomas, in his own words, describing his practice and his thoughts on inequality:

Thomas received a BFA in Photography and Africana Studies from NYU in 1998, his MFA in Photography, and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies from California College of the Arts in San Francisco in 2004. His work is in the collections of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, among others. He has been an instructor in the MFA program at Yale University and the Maryland Institute College of Art and is a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship award winner. He lives in New York City.

Our Next Exhibition: Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal…

Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… is the first major retrospective of this artist's work, spanning 25 years of visual artworks and projects. Organized by the Portland Art Museum, the exhibition will be coming soon to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, opening to the public on Saturday, February 8.

Through photography, sculpture, and other mediums, Thomas explores visual art and its sociocultural ramifications. Combining familiar images from sports and advertising with histories of art and politics, Thomas examines popular culture, and how art can raise awareness in the ongoing struggle for social justice and civil rights.

Here is a glimpse of what the exhibition currently looks like at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon:

We are so excited to welcome All Things Being Equal… to Crystal Bridges next month.

A Glimpse at All Things Being Equal…

The exhibition is organized into eight thematic groupings that each center on an exploration of visual culture. Here are a few examples of the series and artworks that will be featured in All Things Being Equal…:

Branded

In his Branded series, Thomas explores how systems can turn humans into commodities. He examines this extensively within the sports industry, utilizing sports imagery and other marketing campaigns to suggest connections between the past and the present.

In Guernica (2016), seen below, Thomas reconstructed Pablo Picasso's Guernica by sewing sports jerseys together.

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976). Guernica, 2016. Mixed media including sport jerseys. 131 x 281 inches. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Unbranded

Thomas explores advertising heavily in his work, exploring a fundamental question: how do ads reinforce generalizations about race, gender, and class?

On advertising, in an interview with Time, Thomas said, 'Part of advertising's success is based on its ability to reinforce generalizations developed around race, gender and ethnicity which are generally false, but [these generalizations] can sometimes be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying.'

In the Unbranded series Reflections in Black by Corporate America and A Century of White Women, Thomas erases the text from ads (or 'unbrands' them) to encourage viewers to consider how advertising reinforces generalizations surrounding 'race', gender, class, and cultural identity.

Watch this video from the Museum of Modern Art (NYC) to learn more about how Thomas utilizes advertising in his art:

Punctum

A punctum is a compelling detail of an image. Through sculpture, Thomas has taken the punctum of photographs from apartheid-era South Africa and other notable moments in time, and transformed them in a new medium, giving them new life and new meaning beyond their original photograph.

For example, Raise Up (2014), seen below, comes from a photograph taken during apartheid in South Africa, of 13 black men standing against a wall nude, submitting to a group medical exam required to gain employment in a South African mine.

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976). Raise Up, 2014. Bronze. 112.2 x 9.84 inches. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

There is so much more to discover in this immersive exhibition, but above all, Thomas encourages us to question everything, explore the gallery with an open mind, and participate in conversations about larger social issues.

Don't miss Hank Willis Thomas at Crystal Bridges!

The artist himself, along with his mother, artist and photographer Deborah Willis, will be in conversation at Crystal Bridges on Friday, February 7. The event is FREE - reserve your seat here.

Enjoy this TEDTalk they shared last year, and make plans to see them when they come to the museum on February 7:

We will be sharing more information about the artist and the exhibition as we get closer to the opening, including a two-part exclusive interview with Hank Willis Thomas that will be published here on January 20 and 27. Reserve your exhibition tickets and learn more about the show on our exhibition page.