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Review: Hank Willis Thomas at Roberts & Tilton

June 26, 2009 | 12:00 pm


Stepping into the project room at Roberts & Tilton is like entering a time capsule. The walls are papered from floor to ceiling with reproductions of Jet magazine’s “Beauty of the Week” feature, dating from the early 1950s nearly to the present. The installation by Hank Willis Thomas wraps around you almost entirely, with one strip of wall space left blank like an ellipsis: to be continued ....

Thomas typically uses the idioms of advertising and popular culture in his work, and “Black Is Beautiful” is no exception. Jet’s long-running feature pairing swimsuit portraits and brief bios promotes a certain ideal of beauty that, presumably, has changed with the times and the magazine’s editorial stance.

Externals mark some shifts: color printing replaces black-and-white about one-third of the way through the chronological span (the pages aren’t dated); the language of the captions evolves (“black” replaces “Negro,” and so on); bathing suits become skimpier over time; naturals are seen alongside processed hairstyles; bust-waist-hip measurements are eventually dropped from the texts.

Career choices described in the mini-profiles broaden from the feminine stereotypes of two generations ago (nurse, secretary, teacher) to include such unisex professions as banker and Coast Guard officer, but still, aspiring models prevail. After all, this is a page about appearance, not accomplishment.

Thomas doesn’t interpret this array of evidence but instead leaves it to us to determine whether the spectrum of styles and choices represented feels wide or narrow, whether significant social changes (whither the civil rights struggle? the antiwar movement? feminism?) register among these consistently smiling faces, or how the mainstream African American ideal of beauty intersects with the mainstream white ideal. With “Black Is Beautiful,” Thomas provides the means for both celebration and critique and then backs off, prompting us to determine what proportions to assign to each.

-- Leah Ollman

Roberts & Tilton, 5801 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 549-0223, through Aug. 1. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Above: installation view of "Black Is Beautiful." Credit: Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York