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Mother/Son in “Progeny”

Sometimes I See Myself In You, 2008, Hank Willis Thomas

Sometimes I See Myself In You, 2008, Hank Willis Thomas

There are not many parent/child combinations where both have distinguished themselves as photographers (one thinks of the Weston clan), and even fewer mothers and sons. And how many of the latter have ever exhibited together?

Deborah Willis, my colleague at New York University, and her son, Hank Willis Thomas, a graduate of the department in which we both teach, are exhibiting together for the first time in an intelligent and intriguing show of two bodies of work that parallel, overlap and unexpectedly amplify each other. Each artist is fascinated by the muscled body–for Hank the male African-American body as object made subservient to corporate branding, for Deb the female bodybuilder attempting to reinvent herself in an incarnation of out-sized beauty. Seen together, each is measured against an elusive, shadowy freedom, bodies in a painful search for self.

The hopeful sayings written on pregnant bellies in Deb’s imagery (”To catch a lover, tape his picture behind your mirror”) echo Hank’s iconic Nike swoosh branded into a man’s head, one a form of wisdom passed down from well-meaning and often constraining mothers and grandmothers, the other a legacy of ownership and disempowerment by overwhelming institutions. The past does not let go of the present. Then there’s “Thomas and Thomas,” Deb’s father and son in side-by-side pictures, each dressed formally in the same pose on a street corner even if separated by decades, juxtaposed as if only a few seconds had passed. Memory is intertwined, affectionately, by loss and enormous gain.

My father, my son: Thomas and Thomas 2009, Hank Willis Thomas

The show, at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery, is one of those old-fashioned journeys, in a traditional gallery space, where the end deposits the viewer much further along the winding road. It’s also a journey in which the 1960s and the new millennium, compressed together, actually have much more in common–implacable strivings, power imbalances, poignant vulnerabilities, intense, aching loves–than we usually think.

Curated by Kalia Brooks, the show ends June 6.

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