Critics’ Picks

So Glad We Made It, 1977/2006.

San Francisco

Hank Willis Thomas

Lisa Dent Gallery
660 Mission Street, 4th Floor
March 3 - April 8

In his 2004 series “Branded,” Hank Willis Thomas presented trenchant parodies of advertising images that operate by stereotyping—quite literally, branding—black bodies: One digitally altered photograph, for example, shows a black man’s muscular torso scarred with Nike swooshes. In this follow-up exhibition, “Unbranded,” Willis Thomas appropriates advertisements from the ’70s to the present, stripping them bare of all logos and text. Set free from the corporate sponsors that formerly held them hostage, some of the images appear cheerfully ambiguous, even innocent, like one of a black child making chalk drawings on pavement (from a 1973 Exxon ad), or one of two black middle-class couples enjoying hamburgers over a game of backgammon (McDonalds, 1977). On second glance, however, it’s clear that more than fast food is being sold here. Willis Thomas’s digital détournements work to expose mythifying codes deployed to solicit identification and desire—what Barthes called “the rhetoric of the image.” His subtractive strategies recall those of the Pictures generation (especially Sarah Charlesworth), but he imparts new urgency to appropriative acts by focusing on the ubiquitous corporate exploitation of black bodies and culture. On the one hand, these ads are shown to play upon non-black viewers’ desires for the Other, but more frequently, they direct fantasies of the good life at those who may have the fewest consumer choices in our current economic system.