Art that uses the language of media to tease out social mores is as old as Marshall McLuhan’s communication theories, but seldom as interesting. Enter Hank Willis Thomas’ exhibition at Jack Shainman, for example, and the first work you’ll see — a framed picture of a young Michael Jackson inscribed with “Time Can Be a Villain or a Friend” — makes a small splash in a weak show of like-minded work. After all, anyone who hasn’t been living in a hermetically sealed jar of mayonnaise for the last thirty years will read a more succinct message from the portrait alone. That the latest chapter in the ongoing coverage of Jackson’s breakdown will complete itself just two months after the exhibition closes — when his personal effects are sold as a result of foreclosure — seems almost irrelevant.
Willis Thomas, however, appears not overly interested in current events, unless they reveal racially charged messages within mass media packaging and the commodification of black identity. A large number of works in the exhibition deal specifically with the visual and textual languages of advertising, but most lack ingenuity. Among the least successful of these pieces is a mirrored corporate tree logo from which a lynched basketball player hangs while a small colonial figure walks away. It provides little ambiguity. I suppose that’s fine — effective advertising hardly offers subtle messages either, but at least it captures audiences’ attention. In contrast, Willis Thomas offers a powerful story told badly.
Similar problems exist elsewhere in the show. Absolut No Return — a seamlessly photoshopped bottle shape carved out of the entrance of a cave and a slave ship dock — suggests a distorted vision of history, but not much more. Neon Light Word Art seems to be back too, as demonstrated by Pitch Blackness Off Whiteness, which glows “Off Pitch White Black Ness” in white and black. Artist Glenn Ligon’s similarly formatted neon piece, I sell the shadow to sustain the darkness, seems both more poetic and precise.
And yet, despite many weak moments, the show isn’t a total wash. The strongest piece, a suite of 20 paper works featuring different graphic arrangements and permutations of the text I Am A Man, presents a myriad of representations and contradictions within black male identity. Here, Willis Thomas’s fragility, power and sensitivity, each equally potent, seem far more personal and unique than the other poorly conceived corporate media critiques. In fact, it reads the way tremendous self-portraiture often does; presenting not only the good and the bad, but a history larger than that individual.