“An All Colored Cast” by Hank Willis Thomas at Kayne Griffin Cocoran
Nestled in a small gated space on La Brea, Kayne Griffin Corcoran presents itself as more of a Hollywood garden party than a contemporary art gallery. You almost have to be “in the know” to know that art openings are taking place here. Known for having its own personal James Turrell installation, the gallery played host to “An All Colored Cast” (I laugh at the irony as I write), a solo exhibition by Hank Willis Thomas.
You are welcomed into the property’s courtyard by the bright orange of A Suspension of Hostilities, 2019, a replica of the “General Lee,” car made famous by the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard”. I immediately wondered how the patrons would react upon first glance with the confederate flag being a centerpiece of the famed auto, (you know, since everyone is so political now and forget it was part of Americana at one point) but felt confident that once I got inside and walked around the show a bit more, I’d find clarity.
I arrived a bit early after visiting other spaces in the area to find the exhibition empty. Guests to the gallery were tuned into the artist walkthrough of a concurrent exhibition by San Diego based artist Raul Guerrero titled “Sonora Desert: Flora, Fauna & Artifacts, on view in the adjacent room. I took the opportunity to spend time with the art from Thomas’ show, trying to gauge how I felt about them before other ideas of interpretation could corrupt my experience. The work presents itself in large abstract forms, taking on the likenesses of earlier creations by esteemed modern artists. I thought of Noah Davis’ 2013 exhibition “Imitation of Wealth”, where he duplicated works of modern contemporary artists in an attempt to disrupt the classism in the access to quality art. I had prior knowledge of the “secret” contained in these works, so I started to do a little digging. Using modern tools (my iPhone) to wipe away the surface and reveal the real jewels hidden in plain sight.
The secret to Thomas’ installation was you had to direct light at the artwork to get the extra effect. The illumination of light would reveal the underlying piece of the artistic puzzle. Taking a flash photo probably worked best I thought, but that’s usually against the rules in art spaces. Since no one was around, and I wanted to see. Like, really see. Fuck it. Let’s do it. I can always apologize (if I get caught, of course).
The first artwork I walked up to was Field Day (Test Pattern), 2019, a large horizontal panel, divided equally with a spectrum of eight colors that are lined vertically, giving reference to the SMPTE color bars. These bars are a television test pattern for the NTSC video standard in North America. Flash. As I looked down at the phone, the bars magically became transparent and a new image appeared! “Holy shit! What is this?” I thought, “Let me try this again.” You know because iPhones do some weird shit. Flash. It happened again!
What’s shown under the color bars was a still photo of a man in blackface in a suit, smiling and standing around a group of black people. Some also smiling, and others with looks of disappointment. The verticality of the color bars allows each part of the image to be analyzed, bookmarked and separated from the whole for further investigation. Seeing the image as eight separate parts allowed for many main characters, giving each subject a renewed visibility through the detachment.
The crowd then moved into the gallery where “An All Colored Cast” was on view. Thomas began to give his insight on the execution of the work, alongside team members who also contributed their experiences throughout the process. We gathered in the center in the space as Thomas kept instructing everyone to move closer. I’m guessing so that everyone could hear clearly and he wouldn’t have to yell.
An installation titled Not So Easy, 2019, featuring a disassembled Harley Davidson style chopper was spread across the floor alongside a helmet designed with the colors of America and a matching gas cap among the panoply of motorcycle parts. It was like the late stuntman, Evil Knievel had crashed into the gallery and took off before anyone could identify him. I saw the dismantling of the bike almost as a portrayal of the fabric of American values in need of a tune-up.
Thomas waxed eloquently about the images he and his mother (Deborah Willis, a notable artist/photographer, and curator) enjoyed watching on television, which greatly informed his upbringing, and how Black Hollywood shaped the family’s evening entertainment as images like the “General Lee” car was a mainstay in their everyday programming. Thomas further explained that during the research for this show, his team discovered the show’s producers had nearly three hundred replicas of the car – as it was continuously damaged during “The Dukes of Hazzard” filming.
The confederate flag has long been a symbol synonymous with a period of high racial animosity, but in “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show, it’s attached to the car of the hero in the story. I likened Thomas’ story of his childhood entertainment experience to that of James Baldwin, who articulated during a debate with William Buckley, his conflict with the image of Gary Cooper in traditional American Western film. Baldwin expressed cheering on the hero Cooper, only to realize that the Native American “villains”, could be a visual representation of himself in the eyes of his countrymen.
Thomas continued his dialogue with the audience and spoke to the inspiration for the exhibition. He lamented the influence of the modern art masters and how they impacted the series. He mentioned artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol, and Josef Albers whose familiar style of abstract shape can be identified immediately in Thomas’s presentation.
We gathered in front of Deep South (Red Diagonal), 2019, which pays homage to Ellsworth Kelly’s work Red Diagonal, 2007, a beautiful oil on canvas work that features a painted white square overlaid by another canvas painted bright red, conjoining the two panels creating a unified sculptural work. In Thomas’s interpretation, he uses UV print on retroreflective vinyl mounted on Dibond to achieve the result.
After a short explanation of the work, Thomas invited a member of his team to shed further light on the process of developing the series. She also instructed people to move closer (Were we really that far away?) and turn on a light source from their cameras, which would allow patrons to follow along and see first hand the results of the process. Sounds of enjoyment filled the room as the patrons were able to discover what was hidden beneath the surface of the artwork which added a new element and offered an entirely different perspective on its meaning. I was able to focus on the reactions of the guests as I previously experienced their shock and awe moment when I first encountered the “secret” behind the work.
Thomas and associates collectively explained what the image reveals when light is shone onto Deep South (Red Diagonal), 2019. What it shows is a promotional still from the 1975 movie “Mandingo,” in which a white woman presents a very demonstrative face while clutching the rope that is tied to the waist of a slave named “Mede” as he looks on in displeasure. The “Red Diagonal” in this work is used as a point of focus as it highlights the key elements in the image, which are the looks on the faces of the subjects contained within. I was unaware of the film until I began writing this essay. I decided to watch “Mandingo” to understand the context of the image and how it could elevate my perspective. Suddenly, I grasped the many ways that the image in this work profoundly affected how I perceived it.
Various ways of comprehending the visual ran through my brain. In one case, I saw it as the artist speaking to the recent growing interest in art by people of color, specifically significant works by Africans and African-Americans. Specifically, how art is essentially “roped up” or consumed by deep-pocketed art dealers and collectors, looking to stay ahead of the latest flipper. If you’ve paid minimal attention in the last five years, you’d understand that “black art” has become a commodity for collectors and museums alike. These entities present themselves as lost sheep who are looking to make “corrections” while updating e their holdings to include contemporary black artists. I continue to laugh at this thought.
The film “Mandingo” still represented to me the proverbial auction block that black artists have been on lately, gaining roster spots with dealers that traditionally looked past them. Now represented by these galleries, these new “prizefighters” mostly from a cast of people of color take on the task of winning fights (having strong exhibitions and sales), and breeding (being able to bring in other profitable friends) making a worthy investment for these institutions and galleries just as “Mede” was made to do as a slave in the film. Only when investigative articles are written, and tough questions are answered about art dealings, does any of this truth gain clarity.
Could the artist also be insinuating that the inaccessibility to gallery spaces, media, and supportive patrons have suppressed black artists during this period? Hopefully, that’s something the artist will clarify as literature is developed for this exhibition.
The gallery attendant provided the guests with pairs of glasses, with lights attached, allowing viewers to walk the exhibition hands-free. Simultaneously, allowing those without iPhone lights and other devices to participate. Since I had already experienced the reveal of the process on my own time, I wanted to marvel at the real-time responses from the patrons. When the lights were turned off, the viewers became forensic scientists, using the provided tools to enhance their visibility, parsing through each artwork with finer detail.
As Thomas guided us through the exhibition, he reiterated that the images reveal themselves under a direct light source like the Deep South art piece. As each work became the center of concentration, you could see the image come to life with the lights aimed in the same direction. When the work An All Colored Cast, 2019 was illuminated, I realized that Thomas made reference to Andy Warhol’s famed Ethel Scull 36 Times, 1963. This work featured Ethel Scull, the wife of art collector and magnate Robert Scull, with thirty-six different portraits, all with varying color backgrounds. What was really cool about this work was that it included photos of some of Hollywood’s elite stars, again allowing them to “share the stage” through the color division – just like the earlier work.
As we walked toward “People Just Like To Look At Me” (Spectrum IX), 2019 (probably my favorite piece in the exhibition), Thomas enlightened the guests on some of the backstories of the actors and actresses of Black Hollywood. I compare this work to that of Mickalene Thomas’ 2016 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles titled “Do I Look Like A Lady?”. Her exhibition featured beautifully abstracted forms made from acrylic mirror and wood panel, where leading black women like Diana Ross would be memorialized. I could almost see that exhibition almost as an external precursor to “An All Colored Cast”, gaining inspiration from the viewing perspective of his mother, Deborah Roberts. Especially with Mickalene Thomas’s presentation, curating books, magazines, furniture, and carpets, recreating a black family living room atmosphere.
The sea of light focused on him acted as a spotlight would following a stand-up comedian doing their routine. Or police officers shining their high-beams of white light from their cars into the faces of young black men. Let’s keep it positive and go with the former. Thomas mentioned how many were forced into wearing blackface and portraying “Coon Characters” just to have the opportunity to grace the big screen. And by doing this, it opened up doors for the entertainers we love and enjoy today.
After the walk-through, I got a chance to speak with Thomas about my takeaways from the show. The forensic approach to fully understanding the series encourages the viewer to do a little more to get the intended result. I wondered if he and his team thought of that approach during the conception of the project. To my surprise, he was very interested in my perspective, as his team employed that type of thinking when creating the project, but without using that exact term.
At the end of the day, my question is, What are we shining a light on? If we were to take a deeper look beyond what’s on the surface, will we find the truth? Reality? Will we find change when we shine a light on these replicated situations? Maybe. But if I had to bet, it would be just another rerun. Another “General Lee” replacement vehicle for the hero.