Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas discusses his new monograph and politics in art

Hank Willis Thomas, Stars and Bars, 2015, decommissioned prison uniforms, 61 3/8" x 56” x 2 ½”.

Why do we believe the stories we’re told? The artist Hank Willis Thomas recasts pop culture iconography to foreground the ways that representation dissembles. His recently published monograph, All Things Being Equal... (Aperture, 2018), is a comprehensive survey of his photographic approaches. The book is also a prelude to his first solo museum show, which debuts in October 2019 at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon.

I’D BEEN TALKING WITH APERTURE about doing another book since 2008, after publishing my first monograph, Pitch Blackness. Over the past couple of years the conversation became more focused because I’m planning my first survey show at the Portland Art Museum for fall 2019—an opportunity to contextualize my work in a broader context. The book All Things Being Equal… came about as a way to synthesize various aspects of my practice, and issues of perception and representation, which is hard for me to do as an artist. So I am grateful to have worked with Sara Krajewski, Julia Dolan, and Lesley Martin. The book features essays by Dr. Sarah Lewis and Dr. Kellie Jones. I’ve known Kellie for a long time, and she’s been integral in thinking about how my work functions.  

I have always been interested in the role of text in photography, probably because of looking at magazines and graphic design when I was younger. Introducing text opens up doors for the artist to bring new and sometimes contradictory perspectives into a piece. For me, the opportunity to work with artists such as Jim Goldberg and Carrie Mae Weems, who are visual storytellers but also haven’t shied away from incorporating text as a way to get the viewer implicated, was important. Because when I read text in a work of art I am imbibing it and I can’t glance away. Reading sucks in the viewer, and I like that.  

I never learned to paint or draw, or sing or dance, in all my years of school, so in a way I felt inadequate as an artist because I learned more about looking and critical thinking than about the practice of artmaking. But that may have prepared me for taking on photography, a medium that changed dramatically while I was in art school, from being entirely analog to being almost entirely digitally focused. I spent a good amount of time in grad school working with Chris Johnson, Larry Sultan, and Goldberg. Each helped me expand my idea of the role of an artist and how an artwork doesn’t have to be prescribed—specifically, how an art practice doesn’t have to be limited to one medium.  

Excerpts from an interview with Hank Willis Thomas.

All of my work is about framing and context. Where you stand affects what you see. Your notion of reality is completely shaped by your perspective and what you bring to what you’re looking at. You can have multiple people looking at or talking about the same thing, but having different experiences when it comes to what they’re seeing and what they’re actually talking about.  

I’ve always loved modern art, especially Minimalism and Conceptual art. However, I’ve often struggled with interpreting its meaning and even interpreting its value, and at some point I thought that I could engage with it more closely by working with optical ideas that artists such as Frank Stella, Daniel Buren, and Ellsworth Kelly were wrestling with. I was really interested in Buren’s stripes because they are seen as so mundane and apolitical, and I realized that in the United States stripes play a critical role in our iconography as a country (the stars and stripes) but, of course, that we also imprison more people in the land of the free than anywhere else in the world and that prison stripes also have a meaning, a potency. There’s the idea of bars that are meant to represent liberty but are also meant to represent people being confined.

I thought by using stripes, for instance in Every Act Is Political… (Buren)—and they’re the signature medium in Buren’s work—that I could add something into that meaning, so I started to use old prison quilts that have stripes in them. And I thought by remaking popular works by canonized artists I could possibly complicate the conversation about what I believe, which is that all art is political. Finding Buren's quote that every act is political after I made the work really solidified my idea that it doesn’t have to look political to be political, and maybe if it doesn’t look political we need to reshape our notion of what the political is.