During a boozy opening night dialogue with Danielle McCoy and Ragen Fykes of Wieden+Kennedy, and assistant professor Dr. Derrais Carter from the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Carter asked conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas how he got someone to give themselves a Nike scar for his photograph “Branded Head.” Thomas replied, “Uh, this is Photoshop.”
It was surprising to hear someone take Thomas’ photo as truth, but also appropriate, as a major theme in his work deals with the “truth” of photography. In a brief conversation I had with Thomas about the retrospective, he stressed, “Truth is the most potent battleground there is.”
Thomas’ early work focused on the production of fictional corporate products; more significantly, he used corporate advertising and careful redaction of logos and brands’ to examine what the ads were really selling. Eventually going beyond advertising, Thomas explored all manner of images, isolating singular gestures and remaking them in sculptures of fingertips grazing basketballs and passports turning to ash. These works and more are all part of All Things Being Equal..., the Portland Arts Museum’s new retrospective of Thomas’s work, which brings together old and new pieces of incredible variety—including Christopher Columbus’ credit card, gold chains, button pins bigger than stop signs, and an enormous scrap quilt of Picasso’s “Guernica” made from sports jerseys.
The contrast of pointed shallowness and hidden depth in Thomas’ work is stunning. The height of these extremes comes in “Winter in America,” a harrowing stop-motion video reenacting the 2000 murder of Thomas’ cousin, Songha Willis, with G.I. Joe action figures.
The show makes for an intense experience that could spark any amount of brainy critique. But instead of curatorial insights, the descriptions accompanying the artworks are ususally quips from students at Martin Luther King Elementary. I found the children’s reactions as profound as any art critic’s.
This is the first survey of Thomas’ work and the biggest PAM show in years. And they know it. There are loads of events attached, but I’m particularly excited to check out the Numberz on Thursday, November 7, where DJ Ambush will curate a DJ set soundtrack within the exhibition and as a live broadcast on 96.7 FM. Also worth noting are films selected by Thomas, which will be shown throughout the exhibition’s run. John Carpenter’s They Live already screened, but next up is James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (Oct 27, 2 pm, Northwest Film Center Whitsell Auditorium). On Saturday, December 14, there’s free museum admission and you can catch the PBS documentary Malcolm X: Make It Plain.
Quite plainly, this show rocks. It’s tragic, intense, sincere, and slick, with surprising and unforgettable fusions of feelings and ideas. That the show has so much heart reflects Thomas’ extraordinary intention, which he seemed to comment on at the end of the opening night discussion. “There is no stronger power in the universe than Black joy,” he said. “Because it has been tested and never been destroyed.”