What: Hank Willis Thomas - Another Justice: Divided We Stand
Where: Kayne Griffin, 1201 South LaBrea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90019
When: 12th November - 8th January, 2022
Via Kayne Griffin:
Kayne Griffin is pleased to present Hank Willis Thomas’ second solo exhibition at the gallery, Another Justice: Divided We Stand. Comprising large-scale sculptures and mixed media quilted works, the exhibition of new work continues Thomas’ exploration of American iconography, color theory, and language. Another Justice: Divided We Stand. will be on view from November 12, 2021–January 8, 2022.
Thomas’ recent works investigate the fabric of our nation—literally and figuratively—through the deconstruction and reconstruction of U.S. flags and striped prison uniforms. In drawing attention to the similarities of these materials, the artist navigates the complexity of distinguishing patriotism from nationalism. The work is part of Thomas’ negotiation of an enduring conundrum of the United States of America: Can “the land of the free” also be home to the largest prison population in the world?
The artist uses textiles from flags and prison uniforms to form abstract patterns and labyrinths of text that make reference to the founding ideals and complicated realities, past and present, of the American experiment. Though the 13th Amendment is popularly believed to have abolished slavery, in fact it intentionally created a loophole wherein the practice was allowed to continue as “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Through this loophole, the prison system has continued to exploit and trade human beings and profit from their free labor. In her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes “Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” Inspired by his desire to imagine the U.S. living up to its ideals of perpetually becoming “a more perfect nation,” Thomas embeds his own language into these charged materials, highlighting the significance across time and space of ideas such as “liberty,” “justice,” and “capital.”
Furthering the artist’s investigation into archival imagery and objects, Strike, a monumental sculpture, is also included in Another Justice: Divided We Stand. It is a continuation of Thomas’ Punctum series. The series is based on Roland Barthes’ photographic theory of the punctum, which refers to the detail in an image that pierces or wounds the viewer, creating a direct relationship between them and the pictured object or person. Thomas uses this concept to select or reframe areas of images, which he then transforms into large-scale sculptures. Rendered in stainless steel and painted aluminum, these works challenge the viewer’s positionality within scenes of oppression and resistance, encouraging reflection upon one’s own relation to systems of power.
By magnifying select frames in three-dimensional objects, Thomas choreographs a spatial confrontation between his audience and the fraught subject matter of the original image. Depicting one hand stopping another’s swing of a police baton, Thomas’ Strike is based on the 1934 lithograph Strike Scene by Russian-American painter and printmaker Louis Lozowick. In isolating these disembodied gestures, the work prompts questioning of the enactment of justice: is justice the arm swinging the baton, or is it the force stopping it? Reflecting the viewer back in its polished finish, the work asks its audience, “What is your role in justice?”
This exhibition comprises one part of the greater Another Justice: By Any Medium Necessary, produced in collaboration with For Freedoms, the arts collective co-founded by Hank Willis Thomas. Taking place over the course of a year, the larger Another Justice invitation is a series of interdisciplinary projects and programs that contemplate what justice looks like internally and externally as we attempt to define our own needs and responsibilities, and connect that back to systems of power. This includes a series of billboards commissioned by the LANDBACK.Art campaign, a partnership between the organizations NDN Collective, For Freedoms, and INDÍGENA, centering upon the theme of “Land Back” in reference to the campaign led by Indigenous activists regarding decolonization and Indigenous sovereignty. Visible above Kayne Griffin is the billboard designed together by The Gabrielino-Shoshone Tribal Council of Southern California, artist Tekpatl Kuauhtzin, and photographer Josué Rivas. Across the country, For Freedoms and LANDBACK.Art have invited 20 Indigenous artists, community members, and their allies to illustrate their answer to “What does land back mean to you?”
The opening weekend will feature public programming elaborating on the themes within Thomas’ work, including a conversation Friday November 12th at 5pm with Wendy Staggs, Norma Cumpian, and Misty Napolitano, members of the Women Beyond Bars Initiative, UCLA Prison Education Program director Bryonn Bain, and UCLA Prison Education Program faculty-in-residency and For Freedoms Executive Director Claudia Peña. In addition, the programming will be accompanied by a breadth of supplementary materials for visitors.
With Another Justice: Divided We Stand., Thomas’ masterful manipulation of American iconography serves as a poignant reminder of the work that still needs to be done, initiating a call to action for new ways of relating to this country’s promise.