Hank Willis Thomas: Strange Fruit @Aldrich

JTF (just the facts): A total of 4 color photographs and 1 video, alternately framed in black and white and unmatted, and hung in small single room space in the ground floor of the museum. The photographs are all digital c-prints, ranging in size from 60×29 (in editions of 5+1AP) to 35×96 and 65×96 (in editions of 3+1AP). The video runs for 5 minutes, and is available in an edition of 3+1AP. All of the works were made in 2011. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Hank Willis Thomas’ newest works pack a wallop in terms of emotional intensity. Mixing the visual language and loaded symbols of slavery with those of modern day professional sports, his stylized images of football and basketball force a dialogue about what kind of options are really available for many contemporary African-American males. They draw uncomfortable, stark parallels, and imply an overlooked, discouraging interchangeability between history and the present.

In both the video and in two of the single photographs, Thomas replaces a traditional basketball hoop with the hanging rope of a noose. Classically beautiful and muscular bodies jostle in one on one and two on two matchups, with layups, jump shots and thundering dunks aimed at the circular rope. A haunting crescendo of musical chants, hums and work songs simmers in the background. Many plays end with one player soaring and dunking through the noose, only to be left hanging alone against the empty blackness, dangling from the rope instead of the rim. The triumphant sporting spectacle has been turned into a lynching (thus the reference to the Billie Holiday song in the exhibition title), where elegant, powerful athleticism has been overcome by prejudice and horror, turning the the whole event into an ugly form of entertainment.

Thomas uses the trappings of football with equal ironic harshness. A man picking cotton squares off with a lineman in football pads, one crouching in the dirt to gather the crop, the other crouching in the perfect green grass ready to play. In another image, a player flies through the air diving for the goal line like a wide receiver, only to be held up short by a rusty chain around his ankle that shackles him to the first down marker. The implication is clear: are these highly paid professional athletes much different than the field workers of old? Aren’t they equally slaves to larger cultural forces? How much has really changed?

The pared down simplicity that Thomas employs in these set pieces turns them into vivid allegories. I like the strong masculinity of the images, and the clear replacement of one form of indentured service for another; his contrasts and comparisons are up front and easily legible, making them much harder to ignore. While this is a small show, it is filled with unforgettable images, ones that ask hard questions and force unflinching examination. This isn’t opaque, incomprehensible art about art – it’s in your face art that smartly uses the lens of our history, challenging the viewer to see the realities of our contemporary world in the sometimes grim and dissonant context of what has come before.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Thomas’ work is not yet consistently available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for interested collectors. Thomas is represented in New York by Jack Shainman Gallery (here).

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Read more about: Hank Willis Thomas, Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 (no website link). Hardcover (21.7 x 28 cm), 98 pages, with 58 black and white photographs. Design by the artist. (Cover and spread ... Read on.

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