No two people experience an art exhibit the same. So much of our reactions are affected by nature, nurture, and whatever TV shows we watched in between. But if you live in America; if you watch professional sports or listen to hip hop anywhere in the world; if you've ever seen a commercial or heard a gunshot ring out in your city, Hank Willis Thomas' All Things Being Equal… will stick with you long after you leave the tranquil halls of the Portland Art Museum.

The exhibit features a collection of poignant pieces, including photographs, film, and sculptures, meant to awaken our awareness of how pop culture, advertising, and social dynamics shape our identities and scales for success. Thomas' work in this expansive exhibit is simple and direct, and the cunning bluntness is what makes it cut the deepest.

The conceptual artist is an East Coaster, born in New Jersey in 1976, and currently living and working in Brooklyn, NY. He has exhibited all over the world, screened films at Sundance, and created permanent installations in San Francisco, Miami, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. All Things Being Equal… is the first major retrospective of Thomas' work, opening here in Portland and gracing only two other cities with the collection of over 90 works of photography, sculptures, quilted textiles, video, jewelry, found advertising memorabilia, and even a custom light-up liquor store sign emblazoned with "ABSOLUT POWER," showing the textbook sketch of slaves packed into the bowels of a ship within the vodka bottle's silhouette.

Hank Willis Thomas, Absolut Power, 2003.
Hank Willis Thomas, Absolut Power, 2003.

The exhibit is varied in the media and themes shown, with pieces that highlight different issues within popular culture, advertising, race, gun violence, and our relationship between past and present. These are all unified under Thomas' effort to challenge the visual systems that institute discrimination and inequality.

To illustrate these themes, Thomas often draws directly from personal experiences as a black man living in America. In All Things Being Equal… he repeatedly addresses the prominent subject of gun violence, stemming from the sudden loss of his own cousin when robbed at gunpoint. In PAM's two-story entrance hall, sixteen enormous blue banners covered in stitched stars resembling the American flag hang from the ceiling down to the floor—14,718 stars to be exact. Each represents a person shot and killed by someone else in the U.S. in 2018. In a photograph on the second floor titled Priceless #1, overlaid text like that old MasterCard commercial reads: "new socks: $1," "gold chain: $400," "9mm pistol: $80," "one bullet: $.60." "Picking the perfect casket for your son: Priceless." The image is a photograph taken by Thomas at his cousin's funeral.

It's powerful photographs like these that strike you the most throughout the exhibit. In the large, vertically aligned photograph titled Strange Fruit (2011), a shirtless black man in Nike basketball shorts and shoes seemingly hangs from one arm, positioned up as if to shoot a basket. A noose sits around his wrist as though the ball is a human's head, while his own head faces away from the camera, drooping down in a chillingly lifeless fashion. With the lighting and the angle, the ball looks more lively than the body, as if to remind the viewer that in the eyes of pop culture, the ball matters more than the replaceable black body to which it is attached.

The Cotton Bowl (also from the Strange Fruit series, 2011) features two black men crouched opposite each other at a yard line of a football field, one a football player in cleats and pads, his face obscured by the helmet, the other a cotton picker of times past, a straw hat obscuring his face as well. They mirror each other's stance, presenting the modern football field and cotton field as different reflections of the same playing field, creating a sort of déjà vu effect that forces one to think about what concepts like freedom, work, success, and choice mean on both sides of that yard line.

Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, from the series Strange Fruit, 2011.
Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, from the series Strange Fruit, 2011.

Across the photographs, regardless of whether depicting visuals from past or present, everything is hyperreal and clear, blurring those lines of "now" vs. "back in the day" with HD focus. It gives every image more power, eliminating the way the sepia-toned, fuzzy look of aged visuals helps us separate ourselves from the past even as it still very much affects modern lives.

You don't have to be an art history buff to appreciate the emotion in Thomas' take on Guernica, inspired by Picasso's famous painting of the same name. Instead of an oil painting, Thomas' Guernica is a collage-styled quilt made of different professional basketball jerseys cut up and sewn together to replicate the distorted shapes of humans and animals in anguish depicting the overwhelming, chaotic suffering of war. It puts the famous colors of the Lakers and Knicks and hallowed names like Durant and Bryant in a light that questions ideals of success, sacrifice, aggression, and state of mind.

Hank Willis Thomas, Guernica, 2016.
Hank Willis Thomas, Guernica, 2016.

Thomas' simple delivery of layered, provocative questions is perhaps best demonstrated in the series of Lumisty film pieces towards the end of the exhibit. Three words in enormous, all-caps font alternately read "HISTORY IS PAST" / "HISTORY IS PRESENT." In another, the message alternates between "WHITE IMITATES BLACK" and "BLACK IMITATES WHITE." With these simple yet stark words, in plain black font and white background (and vice versa, depending on where you stand in the room and, conceptually, where you stand philosophically), Thomas captures the essence of sprawling debates around dozens of issues that surround race relations, social dynamics, cultural shifts and the progression of time.

Somehow Thomas does pirouettes on the fine, high-wire line between polarizing specificity and digestible commentary on complex, personal and emotional themes. He has an uncanny ability to make deeply poignant commentary stated so plainly, clearly and directly conveying rich and nuanced ideas in a manner that everyone can understand. At All Things Being Equal…, Thomas challenges us to self-reflect about society and images we consume en masse in a most inclusive and expansive form—not to mention in our own backyard at Portland Art Museum. Don't miss this show.

Hank Willis Thomas, All Things Being Equal…, 2010.
Hank Willis Thomas, All Things Being Equal…, 2010.

All Things Being Equal… is up now until Jan. 12, 2020 at Portland Art Museum. There are a series of events surrounding the exhibit, including film screenings, workshops, and talks. Go to portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/hank-willis-thomas/ to learn more.