Messages: Hank Willis Thomas Exhibit Back on View at Jack Shainman

NEW YORK—The day before the election, I happened upon a posting by the Museum Nerd. The blogger embedded the popular video from the Jimmy Kimmel Show about why “white folks” should vote for President Barack Obama and wrote on his Tumblr: “In case any of my followers are white folks, here’s an important message from Chris Rock.”

Yesterday, while viewing “What Goes Without Saying,” the Hank Willis Thomas exhibit at Jack Shainman Gallery, I was reminded of the blogger’s witty entreaty.

The presentation is titled “Black Righteous Space.”

Thomas’s show was back on view for the first time since Hurricane Sandy flooded the neighborhood. Standing in a darkened part of the Chelsea gallery, I listened to a black man condemn America’s historic mistreatment of Asian Americans, Native Americans and African Americans. After a while I was able to identify the speaker as Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago minister whose controversial sermons caused a problem for President Obama during the 2008 election.

A graphic animation accompanies Thomas’s audio installation.

“Black Righteous Space,” features a voiceover running in a constant loop and includes many other Black figures offering profound words—Martin Luther King Jr. and even Chris Rock, among them. (A young woman working at the gallery said she hadn’t heard a repeat in the several hours that had elapsed since the exhibit was reopened.)

A succession of red, black and green graphics pulsates in sync with the intonations in the speakers’ voices.

Thomas pairs the audio with an animation of graphic patterns constantly changing and vibrating in sync with the fluctuations of the voices. When the voiceover ends, the animation concludes with a still of the Confederate flag pattern recast in red, black and green.

Black folks will understand and likely embrace and agree with the sentiments of the audio presentation. But the experience reminded me of the blog post because ultimately Thomas’s engaging work is probably intended to be a message for white folks.

In addition to “Black Righteous Space,” the exhibit includes photography, painting, sculpture and mixed media works.

The voiceover is one aspect of Thomas’s exhibit which includes a variety of works and explores race and identity through pop culture symbolism, vintage advertisements and political propaganda.

According the the gallery, “‘What Goes Without Saying’ focuses on subtext, shifting meaning and the complexity of historical actions embedded in visual culture. These ideas are important in the context of the current election and the theater of the campaigns.”

All photos © Arts Observer

“What Goes Without Saying” has been extended. Rather than closing on Nov. 17 as originally scheduled, the exhibit will remain on view through Dec. 8.

Artist Sanford Biggers posed for the half black, half white photo.

Framed using Lumisty, depending on where you stand when viewing it, the Biggers image appears sharp or blurry.

Detail of “Thenceforward and forever free.”

The gallery describes the work as “an enlarged replica of a mid-19th century abolitionist lapel pin toting a photograph encircled by delicately wrought alloy metal known to be one of the very first political buttons to incorporate a photograph.”

At left, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and James Earl Jones.

Muhammad Ali’s famous boast.

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