HWT11.015 A The Cotton Bowl HR, FotoFocus Cincinnati
Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), The Cotton Bowl, from the series Strange Fruit, 2011. Chromogenic print, 501516 × 74716 × 1½ inches. Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum Purchase, W. Hawkins Ferry Fund. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

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The Pandemic Delayed a Hank Willis Thomas Exhibition. His Work Is Now More Timely Than Ever.

Posted on July 29, 2020

Twenty years of work from the renowned photographer, sculptor, and multimedia artist opens at Cincinnati Art Museum September 4, with a distinctly 2020 reimagining of interactive public programming.

An exhibition featuring 20 years of Hank Willis Thomas’s work was scheduled to open at Cincinnati Art Museum in July. All Things Being Equal… was morphed and postponed by Covid-19, but it was electrified by this summer’s protests against systemic racism.

Thomas’s work demands a viewer’s reinterpretation of pop culture, particularly sports and marketing, in the direction of pointing out—and dismantling—racial biases. In the words of Cincinnati Art Museum’s Associate Curator of Photography Nathaniel Stein: “Hank Willis Thomas’s work guides us to the meeting points of art, politics, commerce, and justice while affirming human joy and the role of art in grasping our shared humanity. There is no more important artist for us to pay attention to today.”

HWT18.078 Strike Detail HR, FotoFocus Cincinnati
Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Strike, 2018. Stainless steel with mirrored finish, 33 × 33 × 9 inches. Private Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

“Today,” of course, is a tricky word in 2020. There’s a collapsing of time in quarantine, a relentlessly changing and challenging news cycle, an upending in most sectors of life. But that questioning is the perfect space from which to approach Thomas’s work.

All Things Being Equal… was originally organized by the Portland Art Museum, and it includes more than 90 works, like Thomas’s early photographic series, as well as sculpture and multimedia pieces ranging from interactive video installations to large-scale textile works. The media are plenty, but the artist’s exploration consistent and clear: a deconstruction and critical, social justice–fueled play on the affects and artifacts of pop culture.

The upending that has defined 2020 also hit exhibition plans. “This is an exhibition for which the changing opening date was just the beginning of the changes it has seen,” says Megan Nauer, Cincinnati Art Museum’s Marketing and Communications Coordinator. “We’re extremely happy that we’re still hosting it, and that it could make it here given everything.” Shipping art, like everything, is more challenging in a pandemic.

Nauer continues: “It has shifted, too, in that there’s no way that you could look at this artwork and not apply it to the fight against systemic racism that has so strongly bubbled to the surface, though the artwork remains the same.” Which only underscores, through art, the longstanding, systemic nature of this battle. Though it is past decades of Thomas’s work—with references reaching far earlier still—being surveyed, there is an unassailable timeliness and poignancy for the world today.

HWT18.074 Public Enemy II Flash Crop HR, FotoFocus Cincinnati
Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Public Enemy (Black and Gold), 2017. Screenprint on retroreflective vinyl, mounted on Dibond, 20 × 28 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

Programming has been essential to the exhibition from the start. The museum put out a call last fall for a community committee, with the goal of bringing voices beyond curatorial ones to the exhibition walls. “We’ve been working with roughly 16 folks from the community, all volunteers,” says Nauer. “They’ve been an amazing group of folks to work with. They’ve been challenging us to in the best possible ways, and will be continuing to work through the run of the exhibition.”

“We wanted to make sure there are outlets for people to discuss what the work means to them when they see it at this point in time in Cincinnati,” says Nauer. “Part of what we are doing in terms of contextualizing it is in the programming.” Yet much of the in-person discussion and other programming around the exhibition the museum had planned to host has become impossible. So, given invention and necessity and all, they’ve reimagined how that essential interactive component can still happen.

First up: What they’ve dubbed The Workshop, an array of interactive, public-focused programming that will be hosted on their website and include videos, responses from community members, and more—and will be available for all to access remotely, whether or not they’ve made it to see the work in person. [We will update this story with details as more concrete information becomes available.]

And Second: An open-air, socially distanced film festival is also in the works, with the standard 2020 disclosure that they’re still fielding changes as the pandemic alters logistics every day.

HWT16.001 Guernica HR Copy 2, FotoFocus Cincinnati
Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Guernica, 2016. Mixed media, including sport jerseys, 131 × 281 inches. Private Collection. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

As far as the pieces Nauer personally finds most affecting? “I’m particularly struck by his recreation of Guernica with athletic jerseys. I think that is an incredible perspective, both in the literal and figurative senses. I’m excited to be in the room with that because it’s a pretty enormous, monumental piece, much like the original piece it references,” she says. “I also, as a marketer, am really interested in his Unbranded photography series. It reframes the language of advertising by removing the logos and/or key elements—the corporate elements that direct the way that we interpret that ad when we see it. It just takes them down to their essences and forces us to think about how that story is being told to us.”

HWT05.002 Absolut Power HR, FotoFocus Cincinnati
Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Absolut Power, 2003. Inkjet print on canvas, 53 × 34 inches. Collection of Williams College Museum of Art. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

September 4–November 8, Cincinnati Art Museum, cincinnatiartmuseum.org/hankwillisthomas (Free admission opening weekend, digital programming coming to website)