It’s not always quite this bustling, Hank Willis Thomas tells me as we make our way into his small, fifth-floor studio located in Midtown Manhattan; it’s just when he’s gearing up for a major project or a show—which, these past few years, has been more or less his perpetual state.
With posters, postcards, fabric samples, and mock-ups pinned haphazardly to the walls, bicycles parked in a corner, and a handful of cluttered workstations (each anchored by an iMac or a MacBook Pro), the tightly packed space could be home to any young, energetic, creative New York start-up. And, in a sense, that’s what it is, with Thomas installed as CEO.
Four assistants mill about the room. Some tend to administrative duties (e-mail, scheduling, and the like); others are helping Thomas digitally plot out potential new works (quilts made out of sports jerseys, a mosaic of triangular, glass flag cases filled with brightly colored spices). They’re friends or friends of friends for the most part. And, of course, they are artists, working in media ranging from sculpture to graphic design to computer programming to film.
“We’re all ethnically different, we come from different places, we have different cultural backgrounds, we have different expertise and different interests,” Thomas says. He frequently asks his assistants for their input—what they see, what they like, what they feel, what they think. “It’s important to have heard a diverse group of voices,” he adds. “Especially when you’re making work that is political or about race and gender.”
The artist, who trained in photography (first at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and then at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, California), has expanded his practice to include text-based pieces, interactive installations, and reworked and repurposed ads. He focuses, for the most part, on the ways in which race and gender are mediated through language, advertising, and popular culture. Thomas’s 2005–8 series “Unbranded,” for instance, features ads, geared toward African American consumers, stripped of their logos and text so that the corporations’ carefully staged vignettes of black life in America are all that remain. His 2001–11 “B®anded” is a series of composite images that shrewdly connect the commodification of the African American male body today via sports and advertising with that of the slave trade. In one image, a muscle-bound chest is speckled with Nike swoop-shaped scars reminiscent of those left by a whip’s lacerations.
Thomas takes me up to the tenth floor, where he has rented an even smaller, second space just for the run-up to his solo exhibition at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery (on view through November 17). The tiny light-filled room contains stacks of vintage Ebony, Essence, and Jet magazines and a vitrine made out of Lumisty, a thick, foggy, Plexiglas-like material used in commercial displays. One assistant is busy executing a series of text paintings based on Civil Rights–era campaign buttons, featuring phrases like “Keep the Faith Baby,” “I Am A White Agitator,” and “100% Efficiency Man.” As for the Lumisty, Thomas likes the effect—the way it blurs, abstracts, and sometimes hides the image or object behind it, depending on the angle from which it is viewed, but he’s not yet certain of how best to use the material.
Indeed, at this moment, Thomas is most excited about two printouts pinned to the wall. One is a sepia-hued, full-length portrait of a late-19th-century African American performer, dressed in top hat and tuxedo. The right side of his face, hat, and suit are white, while his left side is presented in black, creating a sharp, vertical line dividing him in two. The original image is part of Emory University’s massive holdings of photographs documenting African American life.
The picture appeals to Thomas for its “kind of dandyism, but also its hybridity,” he says. He’s interested in the subject’s motivation. “We talk about being ‘post-racialism’ now, but this is somebody who’s unknown and dealing with those things in the late 19th century.”
The second image is a reasonably well known, albeit somewhat tone-deaf, late-1950s advertisement for Knoll furniture. It depicts a top-hatted, white chimney sweep lounging in a luxe red Eero Saarinen “Womb” chair, resting his ash-covered face on his sooty right hand. Brushes dangle from the fingers on his left hand, and a noose-evoking rope is coiled loosely around his left arm. The ad ran in the anniversary issue of the New Yorker every year from 1957 until 1971.
“It’s a little bit about blackface and minstrel-sy,” Thomas says. “I couldn’t figure out what the context was, except for Mary Poppins, which was out around the same time. But still, there’s this thing about white men with black covering them. It’s tens of years away from the minstrel era, and it’s only slightly different. Race has always been somewhat about class.”
Thomas wants to build his own take on the subject by combining the two images, riffing on this idea of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic hybridity, and fleshing out the deceptively complex characters embedded in each. He has enlisted fellow artist Sanford Biggers to collaborate and pose.
“I think Sanford’s work has been very much about cultural hybridity,” Thomas says. “He has done stuff with B-boys and hip-hop and Buddhism. He’s frequently engaged with that, and I thought he could be a kind of lens to talk about these issues.”
Biggers quickly got on board. “I think it’s an American knee-jerk response to equate black and white with literally blacks and whites. I want to find a way for it to be more nuanced,” he says. “And, in fact, I think it did that because this photograph and the character in it become more about duality and a more multifaceted being. It’s about the yin and yang, and pathology and moralism, and life and death. And superego. Those types of things. Which are things I’ve really been exploring in my recent work as well.”
A month and several brainstorming sessions later, in early August, the two artists are together on set in a modest photo studio at NYU (Thomas’s mother, Deborah Willis, is now the chair of the department of photography and imaging at Tisch) along with a crew of seven gaffers, producers, and assistants. When I get there, Biggers is stealing bites of an egg sandwich between brushstrokes as the makeup artist applies broad swaths of black and white pigment to his face; she keeps the source image of the 19th-century performer firmly in sight.
The set itself is relatively quiet. Thomas is working with a few members of his production team on a shot list in a nearby classroom while his lead gaffer and camera assistant (close friends and frequent collaborators Kambui Olujimi and Will Sylvester) take test shots against the white paper background and tweak and retweak and retweak the lights.
When his makeup is done, Biggers slips on the rest of his costume: a tuxedo complete with tails, gloves, and a top hat, all bisected down the same line as his face—half-black, half- white—and stitched together by Thomas’s friend, patternmaker Hilary Smith, from goods produced from the Garment District and the Internet. Thomas steps behind the camera, a rented Hasselblad H4, and takes some test shots of his own as Biggers gets a feel for the lighting and the set. “It’s pretty weird already,” Thomas says. To which Biggers replies, “That’s a good sign.”
Biggers moves through a series of theatrical and balletic poses as Thomas snaps away. Some mimic the source figure’s dandyish posture, others seem drawn from Kabuki theater, Grace Jones, Charlie Chaplin, or Fred Astaire. The makeup artist pops up every so often to touch up Biggers’s face, and Thomas’s team tugs, tapes, and adjusts his suit between shots to smooth out any bunching or folds.
Thomas gives direction throughout: “Half smile.” “Look up proudly to yonder.” “Face me a little more.” “Turn another few degrees.” “Exaggerate your foot position.” “Suck in your stomach and puff out your chest.” “Let the coat flow a little bit—let’s see some wagging of the tail.”
The crew orders Thai food for lunch and reconfigures the studio for the second set-up. They’ve rented the exact same red Saarinen “Womb” chair that appears in the Knoll ad, but instead of chimney brushes and a utilitarian rope, Biggers will clutch a noose, a pair of shackles, a chain, two crosses, and a red-and-white Nike Air Jordan sneaker in various combinations. Thomas sets the scene: “You’re exhausted. You’re in the most comfortable chair, and you’re content.”
The third and final set-up involves rented backdrops of a marbled facade and tiled terrace that suggest the courtyard or garden of an upscale estate. Thomas opts for natural lighting, asking his crew to strike the blackout shades coating the studio’s wall of windows. He takes several close-ups and asks Biggers to hold a series of geometric poses with his leg extended behind him. “You’re really good at that,” he tells Biggers while reviewing his last shot. “It must be all that yoga.”
Two weeks later, I’m back at Thomas’s studio. Many of the same assistants from the shoot are manning their respective MacBook Pros. Sylvester is working on an animation for the Jack Shainman show that starts as a variation of the black nationalist flag and changes kaleidoscopically in response to the intonation of one’s voice. It will be screened with rousing Civil Rights–era rhetoric as voiceover.
Thomas has called in his friend Wyatt Gallery, a photographer, to help him sort through the some 600 shots he snapped of Biggers that day at NYU. He has trimmed the selection in half and spliced together a few stop-motion-style films of Biggers in action. Thomas says he’d like to find a way to use them. At this point, he’s still not sure what final form the piece will take, though he’s leaning toward an editioned platinum print, which would fit in the context of the original 19th-century shot.
Thomas is pleased with the results, though, as is Biggers, who stopped by a few days later to see the images himself. The two even think this “avatar” could manifest himself in other scenarios, too—a short film, perhaps, with more of a narrative-driven approach.
Thomas has come up with something fairly ingenious by the time we speak the following week. After printing 22 selects (drawn mostly from set-ups one and three), he inserted several of them into lightbox-style frames made from Lumisty—the material I saw in the studio several weeks before. The effect is remarkable. From the front, the portrait of Biggers is crystal clear, yet as one moves around it, the image becomes increasingly blurred, ghostlike, and hardly recognizable as a human being—a fuzzy totem in black, white, and gray.
It is, in that sense, a perfect metaphor for the increasingly blurry lines of race itself. “I’ve always felt more comfortable in the gray space,” Thomas says. “I think it’s closer to the truth of any given scenario. And that was some of the challenge with this work itself, being half-black, half-white. With my work in general, I’m very interested in seeing if it works at all and seeing if what I was looking at was valid and then from there getting into a deeper idea.”
Rachel Wolff is a New York–based critic, writer, and editor.