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Hank Willis Thomas at Kayne Griffin
November 12, 2021 - January 8, 2022
Walking into Kayne Griffin’s main exhibition space, the American flag is instantly recognized as the material in two of Hank Willis Thomas’ massive quilted artworks. One, which is just over 17 feet wide, uses the stars of 30 flags to create a dense constellation over a navy blue sky. The second, 24-foot-long work uses only stripes.
Less obvious, at first, is the material of a third artwork in the room: a red and white stripe motif which is made from prison uniforms. The uniforms are assembled to create a maze, and if you squint just right, the bars of the maze form text: Land of the Free. This work, paired with our nation’s symbol of democracy and the text of our national anthem, throws into sharp relief that our “land of the free” is offered to some at the expense of others, and that our core tenants of liberty and justice are not simple truths for a nation founded on slavery and stolen land.
Other works spell out “We the people,” “Capital,” and “Liberty” in red-, blue-, and green-striped prison uniforms, compounding a large outdoor stainless steel sculpture of a hand grasping the wrist of a baton-wielding arm. Though the work references a 1934 lithograph print depicting a union strike, the image in today’s America recalls police brutality and abolitionist protest movements.
Hung in an auxiliary gallery, and not officially part of the exhibition, is an artwork that Thomas first presented as a digital rendering for a NY Times Opinion piece asking artists to reimagine the American flag. Now actualized, the work quilts together flags that represent conflicting ideologies in today’s America. In the work, the trans pride flag, the Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) flag, Trump’s campaign flag, and David Hammons’ African American flag share space, suggesting an imagined future where our differences might work together to create harmony instead of violent and deep divisions between our people.
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Photo: Hank Willis Thomas, Land of the Free (2021). Mixed media including U.S. prison uniforms, 80 x 139 x 2.5 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Kayne Griffin, Los Angeles. Photo: Flying Studio, Los Angeles.