As Hillary Clinton gears up for her second run for the presidency, artist Hank Willis Thomas new photo series, Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015, explores how popular images of women’s roles have changed over the last century. “As I started to think about what’s happening now leading up to the election, I thought a lot about the conversation surrounding Hillary Clinton, and the idea that we might have our first woman President, “ he said the other day at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. “I wanted to look at how perceptions of women’s roles and ‘whiteness’ have changed over the last century.”
Building on ideas first tackled in his fascinating project, Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008, Thomas’s new show examines how race, class, and sexuality has evolved in mainstream America. Starting with a 1915 cream of wheat ad that shows two white women being served by a black man, Thomas removes the original ad copy to "unbrand" it and remove it from its original context. In this way, his images reveal their not-so-hidden messages. Touching on gender roles, notions of beauty and desire, Thomas selected only one quintessential advertisement for each year between 1915 and 2015. “None of us fit into the definition of our demographic,” said Thomas. “By looking at this specific demographic a story emerges about how our society values have changed,” he explains. An ad for Drummond sweaters shows a man dangling a woman by a rope off the side of a mountain as he warmly chats up another young man; in another ad from the film Mr. Mom, a woman heads off to work in a suit as her male partner stays at home with the kids. “But you have to wonder how far have we really come.” He was standing in front of the famed Sex and the City ad of a nude Sarah Jessica Parker but nowhere was there a reference to the TV show. Thomas had retitled it, When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better, 1998/2015. “We don’t want to deal with the reality,” he said. “We only want the fantasy.”
Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915 – 2015 is on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery’s two outposts in Chelsea through May 23.