Not your typical pairing, I realize. But this week I learned more about Thomas’ long-term projects (Branded and Unbranded) and Sherman’s film stills (more specifically, her artistic practice before, during and after that work). 

First, let me just say that I think Hank Willis Thomas is a genius. In case you are unfamiliar, his work deals with race in advertising and popular culture. His project “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America” appropriates ads targeting African American consumers from 1968-2008 and removes all logos and product references. The aim of this work is to reveal cultural stereotypes that are created and sustained by mass media. 

Basically, he takes an existing print ad and removes the logo on the coke bottle, the McDonald’s symbol off the sleeve of fries, etc. (See image below.) And as the viewer, what you are left with is the stripped-down inanity of these constructions.

Hank Willis Thomas showing an original ad and his appropriated version with the Salem logo removed.

Hank Willis Thomas showing an original ad and his appropriated version with the Salem logo removed.

It’s so smart. One of the things I read said that Thomas “wants his work to force viewers to think critically about the ways corporate and media imagery mediates and shapes our experience of the world.” The brilliance is how the work absolutely does this, without being obtuse or overly academic. But it’s also not heavy-handed. The whole concept just seems so purposeful, direct and well-thought out.

And then I was reading about Cindy Sherman’s film stills. I knew about them, of course, but I read an introduction she wrote for her book of film stills that talked about her art-making and how she ended up creating the series. Sherman is an icon and a goddess, I know this, but it was really interesting to read someone else talking about the work and then her talking about the work. 

All of the talk about the stills make note of the cataloging of different female stereotypes, like she set out to create a feminist encyclopedia of how women are portrayed in the world. She did that, and it was powerful and new and brilliant. But the way she talks about the process, it seems less proscribed than that. She says, “I know I was not consciously aware of this thing the ‘male gaze’. It was the way I was shooting, the mimicry of the style of black and white grade-Z motion pictures that produced the self-consciousness of these characters, not my knowledge of feminist theory.”

Does it matter whether you have a clear intention from the outset or whether you let the process of art-making shape the output? Honestly, I have no idea. But personally, I’m super impressed with a well-executed brilliant nut of an idea. #justsaying