Hank Willis Thomas’s What We Ask is Simple, at Jack Shainman Gallery, is a graphic montage of 20th century plight and redemption. Using iconic imagery of modern protest with an advanced photographic method, these works become fully perceivable in form and content while illuminated. Each viewer is nudged to participate in this collective exposure. The entirety of the production, its recurring pull of granular memory, operates like an antique projection, clicking through filmy capsules with pulsing light. Predicated on thorough theoretical research and a deep investigation into archival material, Thomas’s conceptual process relies substantially on the collection of both the iconic and the transient in literary and photographic relics of mass culture.
In the first encounter with the exhibition, we are met with a sign, both an enabling incentive to proceed and directive to heed with caution. Adhered against a mirror, bold capitals lyrics read “What You See Here/What You Do Here/What You Hear Here/What You Leave Here/Let it Stay Here.” Thomas’s poetic introduction sets the course of our procession like a haunting title sequence — both a warning and a requiem. Thomas’s attention to language is a key fixture in the inquiring and scrutinizing nature of his politically charged works. This cryptic text is appropriated from a sign located at an American uranium processing site, covertly directed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Manhattan projects, preceding the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. This piece, gesturing at the foreboding essence of its text’s signal, acts as both an unnerving memory of the past, as well as a provocation towards an inevitable outcome. The message’s direction to the object “you” instructs our movements, gaze and reading in collective consciousness beneath a surveilling watch. Resounding with the weight of official address, the tone of the phrase cementing, we are at once accused and absolved of the depictions to follow and the histories they signify…
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