Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded at the Block Museum of Art

Above: Hank Willis Thomas, Bleach and Glow, 1975/2008. LightJet print, 61.9 x 50 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Renowned American artist Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) has consistently explored American consumer culture, particularly as it relates to African-American subjects. His projects often appropriate images drawn from advertising campaigns to investigate the subtle and not so subtle ways in which ads reinforce ideas about race and race relations. The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University is proud to present Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded (April 14–August 5, 2018), consisting of a tightly focused selection of approximately 40 photographs from two related bodies of work—the 2005–08 series Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008 and the 2015 series Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915-2015, both of which draw directly from the visual repertoire of American print advertising.

Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America explores fifty years of print advertising targeted towards African-Americans—from 1968, a year of heightened social and political protest that saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., until 2008, the year of the election of the first African American president. Thomas digitally stripped these advertisements of all text, including product names and slogans, allowing the impact of their images to be felt more acutely.

Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915-2015 ends with the year in which Thomas finished working on the series, and stretches back to five years before American women gained the right to vote. Like Reflections in Black, the advertising images that are featured in A Century of White Women are stripped of text, heightening our awareness of how we read them as assertions about beauty, desire, virtue, and ideal white femininity.

Seen together, the works in these two series offer a unique opportunity to explore the ways in which Thomas interrogates images across subject matter and allows for a complex and nuanced contemplation of the interrelated construction of narratives about race, gender, and class through the vehicle of advertising. By honing in on print advertising, especially drawn from magazines, Thomas also provides an opportunity to reflect on the important role magazines played as a primary form of mass communication during the 20th century.

Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded is curated by Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, with assistance from Tamar Kharatishvili, 2017–18 Block Graduate Curatorial Fellow. Funding for this exhibition has been provided by the David C. & Sarajean Ruttenberg Arts Foundation, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and the Illinois Arts Council Program.

Opening celebration: Hank Willis Thomas in conversation
Saturday, April 14, 2 pm, RSVP
Join the artist for a conversation on the ways in which his work has addressed advertising, race, gender, and class for the past twenty years. Thomas’s talk will be followed by a conversation with Huey Copeland, professor, Art History, Northwestern University.

About the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University
Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art is a dynamic, imaginative and innovative teaching and learning resource for the University and its surrounding communities, featuring a global exhibition program that crosses time periods and cultures and serves as a springboard for thought-provoking discussions relevant to our lives today. The museum also commissions new work to foster connections between artists and the public through the creative process. Each year, the Block mounts exhibitions; organizes and hosts lectures, symposia, and workshops involving artists, scholars, curators and critics; and screens classic and contemporary films at its in-house cinema.

Admission to the museum is always free and open to all

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