Critics’ Picks

Hank Willis Thomas, There's no hiding from it, 1982/2015, 2015, digital chromogenic print, 40 x 43 3/4".


Hank Willis Thomas

Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University
40 Arts Circle Drive
April 14–August 5

A blonde woman standing on a beach, the sand and sea a blur behind her, stares at the camera. Her face is divided into a before-and-after image. On the left, her visage appears youthful, and the scene behind her is one of a happy family, complete with cheerful husband lifting a daughter into the air. On the right, the woman’s face is wizened, her hair dull and gray; the beach behind her is deserted. There’s no hiding from it, 1982/2015, 2015, is one of thirty-five works that make up “Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded.” The exhibition brings together two related series: “Unbranded: Reflections on Black Corporate America,” 2005–2008, and “Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915–2015,” 2015. In both, the process is the same: Strip an advertisement down to an isolated image in order to expose its subtext.

Removed of corporate branding, skinned of language, what does a picture say? In the case of the above, the ostensible answer is: Apply sunscreen, because overexposure to sunlight causes wrinkles. And, evidently, once your looks go, so will your family. In the series and the eponymous exhibition, Thomas explores how advertising has contributed to constructions of race, class, and gender over the past hundred years. The show is at its most incisive when white and black come together in the same image, as in Are you the Right kind of Woman for it?, 1974/2007, and We are on our way, 1970/2008. The wry, uncomfortable comedy of these works makes for a breath of fresh air in our acrimonious, often terrifyingly humorless times. Still, while these ads reveal their age in obvious ways, Thomas’s appropriation art forces us to consider how far we have really come. And I am afraid the answer is: not very.