Arts Desk

Reviewed: Hank Willis Thomas at the Corcoran Gallery of Art

The first pieces you’ll see when you enter the Corcoran Gallery of Art's one-room exhibit of works by Hank Willis Thomas are large-scale color photographs that highlight the ironies surrounding black athletes—graceful, finely sculpted bodies held back by a first-down measuring chain (right), or defying gravity below a noose rather than a basketball hoop. Clever—but much less affecting than Thomas’ lower-key works, which shine a light on the far less compensated and vastly more obscure victims of actual historical lynchings. Thomas begins with archival images of the brutal punishments inflicted upon black Americans before the civil rights era, then transforms them into even more powerful statements. In one series, he carefully excises the image of the victim from that of the watching crowd, then places both parts of the photograph into separate frames, with the negative space of both replaced by mylar that reflects the viewer, thus making him or her an integral part of the image. In another series, Thomas cuts out the shapes of the lifeless bodies that remain after a lynching; decontextualized, the bodies seem to hover as angelic (yet tortured) forms. These, more than the athletes, are the real victims, and they deserve a remembrance as eloquent as Thomas’.

The exhibition is on view to Jan. 16, 2012, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C. (202) 639-1700. Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thu 10 a.m.–9 p.m.

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