What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

August 10, 2023

Hank Willis Thomas
I've Known Rivers
PACE Los Angeles
July 15 - August 26, 2023

Hank Willis Thomas

Is more (always) better? That question has become more relevant when looking at artworks with the advent of Augmented Reality and other technology driven processes that create multiple viewing layers or experiences for the audience. There have been numerous artworks that offer something "else" when seen through mobile devices, be it an alternate view or a moving image. Hank Willis Thomas has been experimenting with retroreflective materials and uses them to create images that have two distinct but interrelated layers. Retroreflective materials are made from tiny glass beads that reflect light back at the viewer and are often used in the fabrication of traffic signs and pavement markings. For the second layer in Thomas' works to be revealed, it is necessary to make a flash photograph with a mobile device, or view the images with a flashlight available from the gallery attendant. To capitalize on these dualities is cumbersome as it necessitates looking at the work with or through a device. To what end remains an enigma.

Thomas makes visually stunning works that intertwine art and politics. He freely appropriates from art history and advertising to explore issues ranging from race, colonization and globalization to identity politics. For the exhibition I've Known Rivers, the titles of the individual pieces use lines from Langston Hughes' 1921 poem The Negro Speaks, anchoring the images to a literary context. Thomas simultaneously references art history with works by Henri Matisse and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as Romare Bearden.

Formed from irregularly cut pieces of vinyl, many of the large-scale pieces are infused with tones of blue that suggest bodies of water. In My soul has grown deep like rivers and I've known rivers (all works 2023), a silhouetted figure (reminiscent of Matisse's late collages) — either sitting on a rock or drifting below what appears to be a night sky — is juxtaposed with a blue ground comprised of abstract shapes in different hues. When seen with a flashlight or photographed with a flash, these areas are transformed into dizzying collages filled with overlapping fragments of people alone, or in crowds, in addition to snippets of protest signs and newspaper headlines, as well as different types of currency. How these references relate to the unmediated image is something to ponder.

The largest work on view, I Looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it pays homage to Roy Lichtenstein's Pyramids (Corlett 87) (1969), an image of three triangles partially filled with his signature benday dot patterns against a yellow background. Thomas' transformation respects the structure and tones of the original image, but adds a gigantic and abstracted silhouette of a reclining man with African features in front of the triangular pyramids as well as references to nature — leaves, a red flower and the suggestion of an undulating river. This is the initial view of the image. It is striking and powerful. While Thomas has mastered the dual effect and the layering of non-reflective and retroreflective materials, the "afterimage" becomes dense to the point of being indecipherable.

Thomas layers his work with content that is appropriated from a wide range of sources. His works are graphically sophisticated and visually compelling while what they are about suggests different possibilities. While the use of the retroreflective materials takes the works in a new direction and allows Thomas to present two images simultaneously, the journey from past to present, from black to white, from day to night and from abstraction to representation becomes a burden for the viewer who must entrust the viewing of the 'other' content to an external device. Once the wow factor has worn off, there is still much to reflect upon as these beautiful works resonate on multiple levels without needing anything more.