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Canvas Conundrum: Unveiling the Perilous Influence of Advertising and Iconography in Artistry


In Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery, the atmosphere crackles with contemplation as visitors immerse themselves in an open, oval room adorned with a century’s worth of feminine imagery, from 1915 to 2015. Artist Hank Willis Thomas stands amidst the array, gesturing towards a striking image: two impeccably dressed men surveying a cliff’s edge while below, a woman dangles precariously from a rope. "Care to guess the advertisement?" he prompts the assembled guests at the preview of his latest exhibition, "LOVERULES," on its inaugural afternoon. "Sweaters?" ventures one voice, surprisingly correct. This piece hails from Thomas’ ambitious opus, "Unbranded: A Century of White Women." Unveiled anew for "LOVERULES," the 2015 series showcases 101 vintage adverts, meticulously stripped of logos and text, urging viewers to confront the historical objectification of femininity. The particular image in question, an ad for Drummond Sweaters from a 1959 "Esquire" issue, elicits a collective gasp as Thomas recites its original copy: “Men are better than women! Indoors, women are useful — even pleasant. On a mountain they are something of a drag.” "LOVERULES" weaves together Thomas’ hallmark explorations, delving into the nexus of corporate branding, gender dynamics, and racial identity, all within the context of shifting power dynamics in the struggle for liberation. Reflecting on the exhibition with CNN, Thomas poses a poignant question: "What does it mean to gaze upon an artifact designed for a fleeting lifespan, now scrutinized through the lens of four decades?" For the gallery audience, it prompts discomfort, even revulsion, confronted with images portraying women with tear-streaked mascara or stripped of their dignity, surrounded by leering men. (One such ad, a 1963 promotion for Tareyton cigarettes, seemingly trivializes domestic violence in its call for 'aggressive loyalty'; another, depicting a disturbing scene of implied sexual assault, serves as an unsettling advertisement for pants.)

In traversing the terrain of the "Unbranded" series, viewers are thrust into a confrontation with the underlying values entrenched within the advertising realm — chiefly, the tenets of capitalism and the relentless pursuit of profit through the exploitation of identities and ideas. "What is expected of us is very much informed by advertising, which typically has a specific agenda," remarks Thomas in conversation with CNN, succinctly encapsulating the insidious influence wielded by commercial messaging. Put plainly, the endorsement of gender inequality or racial stereotypes served as mere pawns in the sales pitches for sweaters or cigarettes.

For over two decades, Thomas has carved a niche for himself by interrogating the deeply entrenched narratives surrounding race, gender, and class in America, employing a diverse array of mediums ranging from photography to textile art. Whether juxtaposing the poised stance of a football player against the backdrop of a slave toiling in the cotton fields in "The Cotton Bowl," or constructing a labyrinth from prison uniforms and patriotic fabrics in "Justice," Thomas' oeuvre deftly unmasks the patterns of oppression ingrained within societal structures, compelling viewers to scrutinize their own complicity in perpetuating these systems.

In tandem with the "Unbranded" series, Thomas embarks on a parallel exploration in "Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America," delving into the phenomenon of corporate entities selectively embracing (and exploiting) marginalized communities for financial gain — a phenomenon exemplified by the appropriation of Black culture for profit. "Somewhere around the late '60s, I believe as a result of heightened visibility through the Civil Rights movement, corporations started to pay attention," observes Thomas, tracing the evolution of corporate engagement with racial identity.

Both iterations of the "Unbranded" series serve as potent indictments of the advertising industry's role in perpetuating racism and sexism throughout American history. Thomas' visual dissections of cultural artifacts compel a critical examination of how corporations co-opt belief systems to bolster their bottom line — readily discarding or disavowing these same convictions should profitability falter. The fleeting attention lavished on queer communities during Pride campaigns or the superficial celebration of Black narratives confined to February sales underscore the harsh reality: corporate interests will invariably prioritize profit margins over genuine investment in social progress or marginalized communities.

For Thomas, the evolution of advertising presents a more nuanced challenge as traditional still frames give way to subtler, more insidious tactics like influencer endorsements and product placements. "We're consuming advertising information without even necessarily knowing it," he contends, highlighting the pervasive nature of contemporary marketing strategies. Despite our awareness of these manipulative ploys, many still find themselves succumbing to their allure.

In his series "B®anded," a segment of which is featured in "LOVERULES," Thomas ingeniously melds brand logos with altered imagery to dissect our societal entanglement with corporate entities. An American Express card emblazoned with "The Afro-American Express," juxtaposed against a haunting image of enslaved individuals crammed aboard a ship, serves as a stark reminder of historical exploitation. Nearby, a depiction of scars forming Nike's iconic swoosh emblem prompts reflection on the branding of slaves as chattel and the contemporary phenomenon of self-branding.

Among Thomas' creations are reinterpretations of the iconic Absolut vodka bottle, one resembling the Door of No Return—an emblematic portal on Senegal's Gorée Island, synonymous with the harrowing transatlantic slave trade. Transformed into symbols of artistic expression, these advertisements serve as poignant "messages to the future," encapsulating the prevailing desires and tropes of their era.

This introspection invites a sobering inquiry: What aspects of today's visual landscape, accepted as mundane or innocuous, will warrant scrutiny and condemnation in four decades' time? As Thomas prompts us to ponder, the normalization of certain visual messages begs reevaluation, challenging us to confront the narratives woven into the fabric of our contemporary culture.

As we navigate the ever-evolving landscape of advertising and its pervasive influence on our collective consciousness, Hank Willis Thomas emerges as a vigilant sentinel, probing the depths of corporate manipulation and societal complicity. Through his evocative artwork, Thomas compels us to confront uncomfortable truths about our entanglement with brands, from historical exploitation to modern-day self-branding. As we bear witness to his visual chronicles, we are reminded of the imperative to interrogate the messages that saturate our visual culture, lest we unwittingly perpetuate systems of oppression and exploitation. With each stroke of his artistic brush, Thomas beckons us to heed the lessons of the past, to scrutinize the present, and to chart a course toward a future defined by awareness, accountability, and ethical discernment. In this convergence of artistry and activism, Thomas offers not only a reflection of our collective conscience but also a beacon of hope for a more enlightened tomorrow.