Five Minutes, Five Questions Artist Hank Willis Thomas

Five Minutes, Five Questions  Artist Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas estimates it was late 2015 or early 2016 when curators he had known for some time at the Portland Art Museum approached him about mounting a survey of his art work. “Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal…” finally opened at the end of last year in Oregon before making its way to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville in February. More than 90 works of varying media are divided into eight thematic sections that span two decades of history for Thomas’ first mid-career survey. Here, Thomas discusses his work with What’s Up! following the exhibition’s debut.

Q. How did it feel to see your work brought together for your own exhibition?

A. It’s pretty amazing to see. It’s like me looking at my thoughts with a lot of other people; it’s a pretty fascinating experience. But it’s also been a pretty beautiful one, really enlightening. I’m just really excited to be able to see the public engage with it, and then to see new audiences in places where I haven’t really had the chance to show my work that much.

Q. It’s also not insignificant that this is being labeled a “mid-career” survey of your work, which I feel like kind of implies we’re looking forward to the promise of how the rest of your career progresses.

A. Or maybe that’s it. (Laughs) It definitely feels like a high point. I’m really focusing on that feeling and just wanting to kind of take a pause and look at this moment in my life and career and really appreciate it. And appreciate the people who put so much time and energy into helping me make the work, but also make the work have as much visibility as it’s had. It’s really hard to reconcile how many people over the course of the past 20 years have had their hands or hearts or minds invested in making this work real. Though it’s got my name on it, it’s had hundreds of authors. So that’s pretty awesome, seeing the collective pinnacle of all of our work.

Q. You were in Bentonville for the opening at Crystal Bridges, and it looks like there was a pretty good turnout for your speaking engagement. People were excited to have you here.

A. I think that was my fourth time to Bentonville — I’ve spoken at the university, I’ve done site visits for the show, I’ve got friends there now, I’ve done collaborations with 21c [Museum Hotel] in the past… so it’s really cool to see both the city grow, and the community grow. But also to see the public engage with the work in a unique place.

My work [deals] so much with advertising, so being viewed by a public that’s very attuned to marketing in commerce, that’s a unique experience. Because Bentonville and Portland are, in some ways, company towns: Nike is based in Portland. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this show is going to these places.

Q. I want to ask you specifically about the pieces in the exhibition section titled “Punctum” where you’ve created sculptures out of an isolated detail from a photo. What can you share about your process for these works, how you choose the message you want to highlight in that way?

A. In his book “Camera Lucida,” Roland Barthes talks about this idea of, with certain pictures, the thing that sticks with you, the thing that pierces you — the thing that makes an image timeless so that it lives on in the psyche of the viewer. And I found that to be a really fascinating way of talking about how the ephemeral can become, not physical or tactile, but like it has a resonant impact. When I looked back in history or with historical photographs, I’ve always wondered what it was like to be there.

As a photographer, and as a photo researcher, I’m very familiar with archival images, but they always felt like there’s something missing. So, I wanted to create a phenomenological relationship to them by making these sculptures that really allow the viewer to, if not walk into a photograph, walk around the photograph and have a new relationship to different elements of them.

So they’re haunting, but also, taken out of context, there’s a whole new meaning to them as well. All of these are also very political and very charged events. They’re forceful. They’re very iconic, but they mean something different in bronze or fiberglass. They have these colors sometimes that they’re painted in that change when you walk around them. It, for me, brings it back to the wonder of photography in the analog world.

Q. I’d also like to ask about one specific work at the very end. “All Things Considered” ends with the video piece “Question Bridge: Black Males.” Crystal Bridges Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Allison Glenn described the work as an intimate moment, meant for reflection.

Here’s what she had to say: “He’s shown us the power of advertising, the challenge of images. He’s shown us how [physically] moving our body, shifting our perspective, shifts our understanding. ‘Question Bridge’ offers an opportunity to think about all the tools that Hank’s presenting us throughout the exhibition and allowing them to sink in.”

How would you respond to that sentiment?

A. When the curators first approached me [about] did I want to do the show, I was like, “OK, good luck.” Because my work is broad. It’s diverse. It contains multitudes. Typically, artists have a thing that they do and a way of working that people can relate to. And I feel like I’ve always struggled with I’m very much working in diverse mediums and diverse practices, and constantly trying to find ways to bridge the gap between what seem like disparate works. But they’re all coming through me and through my lens of the world.

To me as an artist, it’s like, “It’s just me. Where do you start? How do you begin?” How do you organize your own life, your way of thinking about the world, into eight sections? So that’s why I find it so awesome and humbling that they were able to make my crazy way of being and creating a truly translatable and recognizable practice. I don’t know if I could have distilled it on my own.

So it’s pretty humbling to see that and the fact that audiences, and people who have seen so much art, can actually still feel refreshed or feel like they gained something from it, it’s pretty humbling. Especially, when you think about some of the work being 20 years old, you never make something knowing or thinking that it’s going to be connected to the next thing you make, much less that anyone’s ever going to care abut it.


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Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is currently closed due to covid-19 concerns. See more about Thomas’ exhibit at

Categories: Galleries