Hank Willis Thomas’ Random Acts of Creativity

Liz Luna
Jan 28, 2014 10:15PM

“Photoconceptual” artist Hank Willis Thomas’s work deals with issues of identity, history, race, and class. Currently a Publishing Artist in Residence at the Lower East Side Printshop, Hank produced two new suites of work, most recently on view at UNTITLED 2013 in Miami Beach. I spoke with Hank about his Residency experience and the resulting work.

Liz Luna:  You have said that your art practice can be compared to that of a visual culture archaeologist.  Where do you begin “digging” for source material? Can you describe the process as it relates to the Rich Black Specimen series?

Hank Willis Thomas: I’m the son of a curator, an artist, an art historian, photographer. My mom is Deborah Willis—she’s been a Guggenheim fellow, a curator at the Smithsonian, worked at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—so a lot of my interest in archives comes from literally growing up in archives, in the stacks. I focused on Museum Studies in high school (and was a laughingstock in high school), but it taught me critical thinking and how to use disparate projects to create new ideas at an early age; I think my process has always stemmed from that. With the Rich Black Specimen series, I was looking through images of old slaves, posters, and advertisements for slaves, and then scanning them for other projects. When I scanned them, there was this really crazy rainbow effect that came from the moisture on the page and the scanner. It gave these somewhat generic images an aura or a spiritual glow. I wanted to highlight that in this series.

LL:  In December, I saw Blow the Man Down and And I Can't Run in Miami at the Printshop’s UNTITLED booth. To the naked eye, the images are obscured, but when the camera’s flash hits the reflective material used on both prints, the disturbing images depicting public punishment of African Americans are illuminated. Can you walk us through the development of these prints?  Did the material shape the project, or did you seek out the materials after developing the larger concept?

HWT: I had used that material once before—it’s called “retro-reflective ink.” I’m interested in using generic, industrial materials to make art with, and had been working with a sign company to make work a few years ago. I had seen this material on “Stop” signs and others, and thought, how can I use this in a fine art context? That’s where this project developed from.

LL: As a Publishing Resident at the Lower East Side Printshop, you’ve worked with their master printers on these new prints. What role has collaboration played either in the conception or execution of the projects?  

HWT: Well, I don’t really know how to do that much when it comes to printmaking myself. So I’ll come to Erik, a master printer, with some ideas and materials and say, Can I do this? [laughs] And Erik will say, Well, I’ve never done it before, but maybe. He interacts more with the objects and materials and will tell me what we can do to try this to improve on the work. It becomes an experimentation through his expertise and my random acts of creativity.

LL: Do you think you’ll continue to work more with some of the mediums and processes that you’ve discovered during your residency?

HWT: I feel like I need to. It’s more than a want, I need to figure it more out. That’s where I’ve been invested.

LL: Do you have anything exciting in the works for 2014?

HWT: I have a show opening at the Goodman Gallery in South Africa and a show at Galerie Springmann in Berlin. Those are my two main responsibilities in the next year, that and making new work, trying to incorporate new materials from LES Printshop. But I want to be thoughtful; I’m not interested in gimmicks. When you’re working with new materials, it’s hard not to fall into the gimmick category, so I’m trying to figure out how to make something compelling and engaging, not, Oh... cool.

LL: And since it’s the resolution season, did you make any resolutions for 2014 (if you believe in resolutions)?

HWT: I don’t know if I believe in them, but I make them anyway! My biggest resolution is clarity. Being New Yorkers we’re constantly in the hectic life—there’s so much to see and do; we’re so inundated. But can you see anything clearly?

Explore Lower East Side Printshop on Artsy.

Liz Luna