Art in America

November, 2003

Edward Leffingwell
Lyle Ashton Harris at CRG 

The howling figures of Francis Bacon’s caged and martyred men resurface in Lyle Ashton Harris’s recent suite of 12 unique 20-by-24-inch Polaroid self- portraits. In this startling guise, Harris, fetishized with the attributes of a prizefighter-Everlast boxing gloves and a Duke jockstrap, size large-squares off against an unseen opponent. Rivulets of what is presumably stage blood identify this as a variation on the theme of the martyred queer icon.

Harris’s images constitute a ritualized choreography on the subjects of isolation, sacrifice and suffering. The panels are numbered and titled Memoirs of Hadrian (2002), after Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 novel of the same name, which attracted Harris during a residency at the American Academy in Rome. Yourcenar’s narrative takes the form of a letter to Marcus Aurelius from Hadrian, his predecessor as Roman emperor, written following the drowning of Hadrian’s lover, Antinous, a subject of queer regard who is Harris’s putative subject. If Yourcenar’s Hadrian praises moderation and thrift, he also writes of the ecstasy of the body on the battleground of love. A reading of the gallery’s account suggests that Harris views this series as a meditation on personal and cultural conflict.

Harris’s prints combine a color negative and a black-and-white positive, a process that dims highlights and deepens areas of darkness, resulting in a rich brown palette. Four of the works are photomontages composed of an array of images and objects attached to a large sheet of Plexiglas, stained red. They feature news clippings, a boxing glove, a fighter’s mouth guard, ordinary Polaroid snapshots and in several, the familiar face of Grace Jones. Harris is just barely perceptible through the Plexiglas, hands upraised and pressing against it from the opposite side, like a figure emerging through a shroud. For the rest, Harris shows passion, disorientation and rage, bracketed by some undecipherable margin of darkness that emphasizes his isolation and fury. He crouches, swings a glove, throws his head back and screams.

By intention or hazard, Harris’s project recalls Warhol’s poster image commemorating the New York, New Wave exhibition at P.s. 1. Printed in 1981, the poster presents an athletically supported Jean-Michel Basquiat, in negative, then famously young, attractive, gifted and black, as Harris is today. Warhol’s image precedes Michael Halsband’s 1985 photographs of the ascendant Basquiat sporting Everlast gloves, ready to duke it out with the similarly outfitted Great White Hope of Warhol. Whether Harris is directly referencing these images or not, if it’s true that in the world of art and commerce only the strong survive, he stands his own ground, and is gaining.