#TBT: A look at an art talk on Hank Willis Thomas by Freehand Profit from 2011

All Star “Galaxy” Dunk Gas Mask by Freehand Profit

Back in the Fall of 2011 Freehand Profit made a trip back home to DC to spend a little time with friends and family and even shook off enough social anxiety to speak at Corcoran’s Under The Influence event put together by the WPA (Washington Project for the Arts) , showcasing the work of 11 artists and the influence of the 30 Americans exhibit currently on view at the Corcoran. A few months later I had 3 masks on display at the Corcoran for their Crossing the Line Alumni show: the All Star “Galaxy” Dunk mask, Coach mask & Chicago X mask. Here’s a look at what I had to say:

My work focuses on examining our consumer nature despite being a society at war. It is not intended to condemn or condone but instead as more of a re-alignment of sorts. The body of work is entitled “The Branding Wars” and consists mainly of gas masks made from sneakers. There have been a number of artists from the 30 Americans exhibit that have inspired me; the most influential of them is Hank Willis Thomas.

Thomas’s work uses branding and the language of advertising to discuss race and identity. His use of advertising as a visual language allows us all to tap in to this discussion and form our own understanding of the work. The saturation of advertising continues to grow as more and more forms of advertising infiltrate our everyday lives. The propaganda-esque nature of today’s advertisements are part of the inspiration behind The Branding Wars series. I use similar techniques in my work to feed our love of the object. I say “object” here not just meaning the mask itself but as an object of material desire. We, as a whole, have grown to love objects the way we need food. Our “wants” have become “needs”. We see a product advertised and convince ourselves that we “need” it. Once we have it, we love it. Nothing new there, it’s materialism at it’s finest. That’s not entirely evil to me, those same forces help sell artwork, create jobs and can add to our quality of life. The Branding Wars series aims to address how absurd materialism can become. The underlying narrative that develops through the series describes a world destroyed by all the things we’ve been trained to fear: natural disasters, terrorism, war, greed and violence. Government becomes either non-existant or completely ineffective, leaving people to form tribes of branded loyalists. Typical post-apocalyptic story except our materialism becomes our defining and dividing factor. Leading back to the absurd because what’s more absurd than being concerned with whether your gas mask is made from Retro Jordans or Chuck Taylors. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, we make comparable decisions every day. I for example buy store brand food so I can buy name brand shoes. It’s not easy to admit but going back to Hank Willis Thomas who said in an interview with Juxtapoz: “Americans have to accept the critique of our privilege.”

Perhaps the most influential thing about Thomas to me is his effort to reach people outside of the art community, people who wouldn’t normally be in an art gallery. This has been a personal goal of mine that dates back to my years at the Corcoran. I have worked hard to find a way to convey a dichotomous message clearly through a visual language. Because of my background in graphic design I knew there were clear design languages out there. I looked at different ways of blurring the line between design and art. This gradually became my use of personal and corporate branding that can be seen in my artwork. When I discovered the work of Hank Willis Thomas I was impressed with how well he used branding to reach a wider and more understanding audience.

My appropriation of objects comes from Hip-Hop culture which has been a major influence on my life and work. My understanding of a deejay’s ability to take a piece of music and sample and remix it until it takes on a whole new life plays into my artistic process. In an almost literal way I take these existing, branded, desired objects and destroy what they are in the hopes of what they might become. This approach allows me to also address the commercial nature Hip-Hop has developed over the years from within my own community. These brands can represent status symbols within the world of Hip-Hop as well as reflect perceptions of identity and race as they do in Thomas’s series Branded. His pieces use brands like Jordan and Timberland to address issues of stereotypes and violence, both historical and modern. In his series, Unbranded, he took images of Blackness in advertisements and removed the text. The sources dated from 1968 to the present and together gave us an insight into how Corporate America influences identity. The issue of identity and the preconceived notions of identity are topics I attempt to tackle in my own work. My generation, and even more so the generations to follow, form our understanding of identity by how we brand ourselves. We gain more understanding, or at least gain the perception of understanding, based on how we present ourselves, what brand names we wear and the trends we choose to follow. It’s all too common to find youth and young adults that have built their own sense of identity on style instead of substance. The Branding Wars masks are a hyperbolic example of this, literally masking the face of the wearer and replacing it with a branded identity.

Zero Hour by Hank Willis Thomas

Recently, Thomas has had several exciting announcements. He was chosen by Beyonce as the artist to represent Black History Month on her site, and has just been nominated by Mayor de Blasio to serve on New York’s Public Design Commission.  His newly designed page includes Thomas’ bio, over 45 of his works, exclusive articles and interviews, as well as up-to-date exhibition listings – it’s a unique Hank Willis Thomas resource that I highly recommend checking out.

Corcoran Lion. Photo by Freehand Profit. 2004.
Corcoran Lion. Photo by Freehand Profit. 2004.

Sadly the same can’t be said for Freehand’s alma mater, the Corcoran. Founded in 1869, Corcoran was one of DC’s first art galleries. Via Wikipedia: “[The Corcoran} predates both New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and is known around the world for its collection of historic and modern American art as well as European fine art and for its collection of decorative arts.” After 145 years, the Corcoran College of Art & Design & the Corcoran Gallery (same building) closed it’s doors late last year. 

“Can’t say I’m surprised, the board in charge while I was going to school there had their heads up their asses. Their focus was on building a multi-million dollar Frank Gehry building and neglected the true Corcoran, the gallery and school that had been standing for more than a century. They paid little attention to things, people, ideas that could have improved the museum school and would have saved such a historic and creative institution. When I applied and was accepted they were considered the #3 art school in the States, now look at em. Part of me will miss the good parts, like professors Bill Newman and my fellow art school survivors like Keshaun Blunt, part of me feels like a man without a country – the rest of me doesn’t give a fuck. They ain’t make me and they didn’t break me.” – Freehand Profit

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