Hank Willis Thomas, whose punchy conceptual photographs unpack the fraught ways our society is racially charged, is the first artist to be featured in Monique Meloche Gallery’s Off the Wall project, a new public art initiative to engage the streets of Chicago with work by contemporary artists working at the fore of their field. Willis Thomas has created six photographic images that have been installed on public benches throughout Wicker Park and Bucktown. Each image in the series “Bench Marks” situates black bodies into tropes borrowed from advertising, cues pulled from African-American history and reductive myths around black bodies as athletes, performers and objects of a dominant social gaze. These projects will remain on view through the end of November. See below for a map of the locations of the six artworks.
Meloche’s new Off the Wall programming was inspired by the On the Wall gallery projects that use the window display space in the gallery for special site-specific artworks that face outward onto Division Street. Several months ago, Meloche brought on Allison Glenn as the gallery’s new director, and Glenn writes to Newcity about the conception of Off the Wall, “My first big project when starting in this role was to write the grant report for “on the wall” 2013, and reapply for the 2014 grant. While writing this application, I began to think about other ways that the gallery could engage with the community, neighborhood and challenge traditional modes of viewing. The language that frames ‘on the wall’ was definitely a catalyst for this thought process, and the empty bus bench right in front of the gallery’s doors was another. Why couldn’t we try to push the project further, while maintaining the rigorous and intellectually stimulating programming that was already happening in the gallery’s windowed façade?”
In conjunction with the opening of the “Bench Marks” project (there’s a reception tonight, Thursday, September 11, from 6pm-8pm at the gallery), Willis Thomas has two upcoming speaking engagements in town. Next Wednesday, September 17, the artist will be in UIC’s Voices lecture series, with a talk from 6pm-8pm at Gallery 400. Then on Sunday, September 21, at 1pm Willis Thomas will appear in conversation with Orly Genger and Marilu Knode as part of Expo Chicago’s Dialogues programming at the fair. They will be discussing the opportunities and roles of public sculpture and other forms of projects that collaborate with mainstream culture. (Matt Morris)