Hank Willis Thomas at Kayne Griffin

Hank Willis Thomas, Land of the Free, 2021. Mixed media including decommissioned prison uniforms. 80 x 139 x 2.5 inches. © Hank Willis Thomas. Photography: Flying Studio, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist and Kayne Griffin, Los Angeles

Hank Willis Thomas: Another Justice: Divided We Stand.

Kayne Griffin, Los Angeles
Through January 8, 2022

Written by David S. Rubin
Whereas we commonly refer to having a set opinion as “seeing in black and white,” Hank Willis Thomas masterfully points out in his brilliant and powerful exhibition at Kayne Griffin, that today, in America, having fixed beliefs has actually become a matter of “seeing in red and blue.” Through his innovative repurposing of American flags and U.S. prison uniforms, Thomas opens up a timely and necessary dialogue about today’s opposing political ideologies, authoritarianism and democracy, which respectively are the defining characteristics of the Republican and Democratic parties at the present moment. At the core of his discourse, as in all of his earlier works, are confrontations with the perils of racism and dreams of attaining equality and justice once and for all.

Two monumental quilts made by cutting up and reconfiguring American flags articulate the contrasts between our nation’s longtime political parties with tremendous force and clarity. Standing 12 feet tall and spanning 24 feet across one gallery wall, Imagined Lines is an optically charged composition of red and white vertical bars made by rotating the striped areas of American flags ninety degrees and joining them together. The stripes that once symbolized the original thirteen colonies have thus been converted into vertical striations that suggest prison bars, with their color red now taking on connotations of bloodshed and violence. Mounted on the adjoining wall and nearly the same size, A New Constellation features an allover composition of white stars against a blue field that has been constructed from thirty American flag star fields. When seen in this fashion, the stars lose their previous identities as symbols of states, having become metaphoric signifiers of individual people, each occupying the same amount of space and coexisting peacefully. Compared to the harshness and confrontational aesthetics of its red and white counterpart, A New Constellation offers an appropriately softer and almost comforting tone. The stark differences between the attitudes and goals of the red state and the blue state elected officials could not be any more apparent here.

In a related series, Thomas delves deeper into one of the most troubling aspects of the authoritarian side of the great divide: the perpetuation of a mass incarceration system grounded in systemic racism. Each of the six quilts in this series was constructed from a prison uniform, which Thomas cut apart into fragments that he then rearranged to form labyrinths, perfect metaphors for the confines and monotony of prison life. Embedded within each maze is a word or phrase representing traditional American ideals. In two examples made from red and white striped uniforms, the text is particularly difficult to decipher, but reading the titles reveal that the camouflaged words are ‘AMERICA’ and ‘LAND OF THE FREE’. The message here seems to be that American freedom is currently seriously constrained by an ultra-restrictive system of oppression. Although the word ‘Liberty’ is similarly obfuscated within a blue maze in another example, two instances of the term ‘INMATE’, a found word imprinted by the manufacturer on the prison uniforms, clue us in to the work’s intended meaning. The same is true of a green and white version, where both the color and the hidden word ‘CAPITAL’ point to the money making aspect of American prisons. The most legible works in the series are a black and white example that spells out “We The People” and a red and white one that simply reads ‘JUSTICE.’ The color symbolism in the former serves as a strong reminder that “Black Lives Matter,” while the overall precision of the latter shines a spotlight on the movement’s end game.

Also on view in the Kayne Griffin courtyard is a larger scale version of Thomas’ earlier pedestal sculpture Strike, which is based on a section of Strike Scene, a 1934 lithograph by the Russian-American painter and printmaker Louis Lozowick. The structure depicts the intersection of two human arms in a stop-action moment, where one grabs the wrist of the other, which holds a police baton. Whether the baton’s swinging movement is being assisted or obstructed remains somewhat ambiguous, yet as a symbol for conquering racial tensions in the United States, the sculpture rises out of the ground like a triumphant phoenix.

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