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Hank Willis Thomas Unabridged: Part III

Juxtapoz // Wednesday, 24 Feb 2010

Hank Willis Thomas
Interview by Katie Zuppann
Portraits of Hank by Randy Dodson
Artwork Images courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery

If looking at a Hank Willis Thomas (Juxtapoz #110) piece of work makes you uncomfortable, then mission accomplished. He has stripped the skin off an imperfect America by swiftly dealing a blow to viewers’ hearts and minds. Make no mistake, Hank has a point, and he will make sure you listen up.

In this final installment, Katie Zuppann wraps up an in-depth conversation with Hank Willis Thomas by discussing the notion of selling out, Shepard Fairey’s success, and who he’s really trying to speak to through his artwork.


III. The Art Game

Katie Zuppann: Speaking of that, it’s really interesting that you use the language of advertising to critique the language of advertising. You use the same strategy that a lot of marketing campaigns and advertising companies use in order to explore social issues in a way that a lot of times, obviously Nike isn’t going to want to talk about how they’re essentially trying to brainwash people. But it’s interesting that you use the same strategies.

Hank Willis Thomas: Well, I say I use the language of advertising to talk about things that advertising couldn’t responsibly talk about. Not that it would and doesn’t try, but that it’s almost always seen as irresponsible and one could argue it’s irresponsible.

But the irony is also, more importantly than that; I think the critique of my work is that it also exists within a market. Who can afford to buy contemporary fine art? Really wealthy people who have connections to the same kind of corporations that I’m critiquing. And one of the things that is interesting is that corporations are just like countries, are just like families. Nobody’s all bad. There are so many things that we would like to change about America as Americans but as Americans we also have to accept the critique of our privilege. And I think that my work is not trying to speak about popular culture, commodity culture from the outside. It’s trying to critique it from the inside. I think that makes it very complicated and makes me have to walk a very fine line.

There was this very interesting on NPR the other day: is it possible to sell out anymore? Now that we had Bono and we had the Beatles. All of these people that had really strong political messages, Dylan, are now doing stuff with Walmart, Apple and all these other things. At a time, that would be the way to lose your credibility. Will I Am who essentially really was a major influence in the marketing that brought this president to power with the “Yes We Can” video, you know, he’s doing a Target ad. You know so is just like, we’re so much in cahoots. At the end of the day our society in America is about making money. If you don’t make money in America, America makes money off of you.



That’s funny about the notion of selling out, because Shepard Fairey did the Obama poster and got a lot of fame through that. He graced the cover of Juxtapoz in 2007, significantly before he got a lot of acclaim of a more mainstream scale from this Obama image. A lot of people who were in more this urban contemporary art scene who have been following his work for the past decade are like, ‘Oh, he’s selling out. He’s working with Nike and all these things. He’s everywhere.’ And I brought that up to him and he said, ‘You know, I’m doing the same thing that I always did.’ He still goes out in the streets, he wheatpastes on his own. And it’s just interesting that often when you kind of get acclaim or the mainstream media will glom onto what your doing, people call it selling out. And its like, you know he has two kids and he wants to pay his bills. Is it selling out? What is selling out?

One of the things that is hardest, and I love San Francisco, but one of the things that’s hard about it is that there’s so much talent and creativity that’s going on here, but people are so intensely afraid of selling out that they either don’t have the motivation to push their work to the next level or they’re too stubborn.  They would rather their 500 friends know that they are the shit then to have the world kind of be affected by their work and be considered a sellout or have their authenticity diluted. Because it is diluted by the mainstream.

He is selling out. But when you sell out its at what cost? Because now he has much greater power in his voice than he ever would have if he had just stayed in his college kid, hipster, cool community. He could affect them, but they already know. So how do you affect people who are totally different? You sell out. I think that’s my biggest struggle with the Bay Area; people look up to LA and New York as if it has something that the Bay Area doesn’t have and the only thing they have are the pride of showing the world that this is what we have. I tried to stay here, I was here for eight years and I’m here again. But what I say about New York in LA, I mean I’m so relieved to be back because its insane, but at the same time what makes them exciting is that everyone there is trying to make their dreams come true. The quality of life in New York sucks. LA does not compare to the quality of life here either. But when your there everyone’s like, “I’m trying to make it. I have this idea for myself that I want the world to see.”


Maybe people are hungrier there?

But it’s inherently so because, really you’re going to sit around on the dirty streets and talk to people? Or sit in your car all day? Whereas here, yeah it’s colder, but overall its just so beautiful all the time, people overall are nicer, there’s a good feeling overall in the Bay Area. So it’s like who’s motivated to get on the grind and do stuff like that when like, I mean, I’d rather go to the park and talk to you guys all day then like sit at my computer. I think that’s why there’s so many people like Shepard Fairey living here, but very few people get credibility until they leave. Like that’s how I was too. I was here in the Bay Area. SFMoMA didn’t care ‘cus I’m here. ‘Cus they don’t care about anyone who lives here. So you’re just kind of like, “So…” And it’s not like it’s any cheaper than New York really.

Taking a broader perspective and looking at your artistic motivation, what first really struck me about your work also led me to get more critical with it.

I like criticism. That’s market research.


To me, a lot of it is social. It’s a lot of social commentary, there’s a lot of race relation obviously in there, there’s a lot of social commentary and I think that’s originally what appealed to me. I’m wondering, do you see yourself as a social artist? Where do you see yourself fitting in to the grand historical art dialogue? How do you see yourself falling into the grand scheme of things?

A lot of artists care about that. I care that regular people, as many regular people as can, because how many regular people go to art galleries on a regular basis? As many regular people as possible see my work. Really in a hundred years, who’s going to be looking at art history books anyway? That’s really interesting also is how, especially when you make work about media culture, things change so fast, and it’s like, “Is this still relevant?” And you hope so. What I’ve said to a lot of people about Art History is that, the reason that so many people don’t get contemporary art is because they’re walking into a thousand year conversation at the last second. You hear the last word of a book and you’re not going to really get it. What art lovers or art enthusiasts are expressing is finding out more aspects of the conversation; what got said before that?


So are you choosing to focus on a more targeted period of time because, as you’re saying, you are stepping into a thousand year conversation? Because you bridge a lot of different eras to comment on our current situation. Do you choose to only focus on say the last forty years because of that because you couldn’t make an all-encompassing comment?

Well, there is not one for sure. The only real hope of my work is to inspire dialogue. Dialogue that may not change the way you do things, but change the way you think, which in subtle ways will affect the way you do things through conversations. It may be like, “I don’t like it; I don’t get it.” But with my work I’m trying to make every attempt for somebody to be able to get it. Because if you try to meet me halfway, you’ll probably get something of it. That’s what the work here is about. Whereas a lot of artists don’t necessarily want you to get it, or care if you get it. They want people who know about art history to get it. And for me, in an ideal world, I’d like to be able to speak to both.

Read Part I of this interview online HERE.
Part II lives HERE.

For more information on Hank Willis Thomas, contact




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