June 8, 2010

Artworks, Gigs

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"Slack Power" (1969/2006) from UNBRANDED

Last Saturday (6/6/2010), Leslie and I hopped the No. 7 train from Grand Central to MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. This semi-autonomous branch of the Museum of Modern Art is described on its Web site as “one of the oldest and largest non-profit contemporary art institutions in the United States. An exhibition space rather than a collecting institution, MoMA PS1 devotes its energy and resources to displaying the most experimental art in the world…MoMA PS1 actively pursues emerging artists, new genres, and adventurous new work by recognized artists in an effort to support innovation in contemporary art.”

On this particular day, the Oberlin College Alumni Association was offering a free guided tour to Oberlin grads (Leslie graduated with the class of ’77). I had not visited PS1 in years and was very impressed by the scope and diversity of the current “Greater New York” show, encompassing painting, sculpture, video, photography, mixed media, and two exotic koi goldfish (in a sort of living diorama by Tommy Hartung entitled B Roll). But my favorite among all the various galleries was the first complete NYC installation of the pictorial series Unbranded by the African-American artist Hank Willis Thomas.

Hank was born 3/17/1976 in Plainfield, New Jersey (the original stomping grounds of George Clinton and the nascent Parliament-Funkadelic, BTW) and holds degrees from California College of the Arts and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Father Hank Thomas was/is a jazz musician turned film producer, property developer, and stockbroker; mother Deborah Willis (Ph.D.) is an accomplished photographer, widely published author, NYU professor and current chair of the Tisch School’s Department of Photography. Hank the Younger has been showing his work since student days in the mid-Nineties, but PS1 was my first encounter and he knocked me out.

The starting point for Unbranded is 40 years of selected magazine and newspaper advertisements created by Corporate America and aimed at Black America from 1968. Hank has computer-imaged the ads to eliminate all the original text and brand identifications, so that what we’re left with are remarkably revealing and absorbing portraits of black people (occasionally

"The Mandingo of Sandwiches" (1977/2007) from UNBRANDED

in the company of white people) over four decades of American life, with each year represented by two different images. In place of the ad copy, Hank has created his own captions outside the frames, and these are sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes…something else.

"The Oft Forgotten Flower Children of Harlem" (1969/2006) from UNBRANDED

On his Web site, Hank Willis Thomas says of Unbranded:

“I believe that in part, advertising’s success rests on its ability to reinforce generalizations about race, gender, and ethnicity which can be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying, but which at a core level are a reflection of the way a culture views itself or its aspirations.

“By ‘unbranding’ advertisements I can literally expose what Roland Barthes refers to as ‘what-goes-without-saying’ in ads, and hopefully encourage viewers to look harder and think deeper about the empire of signs that have become second nature to our experience of life in the modern world.”

Hank Willis Thomas with "Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil's Son-In-Law" (2000/2005)

I should give props also to Hank’s fellow artist William Cordova (born 1971 in Lima, Peru) who shares this particular PS1 gallery with HWT. In the center of the floor, Cordova  has constructed a maze from old LP covers, mostly r&b and disco — I believe the title is Laberintos (Labyrinths). This work demanded a little more attention than I was able to give it at the time: The tour group was moving on, and I was still buzzing from Unbranded.

As part of the “Greater New York” show, Hank’s masterful work is up through 10/18/2010. It’s rich in meaning, it looks great, and you really should see it for yourself.