Art In America

March, 1997
Lyle Ashton Harris at Jack Tilton

Grady T. Turner

After years of photographing himself and his family-in part as a Strategy for reclaiming the black body as an artistic subject, in part as a narcissistic reflection on his own physical beauty – Lyle Ashton Harris now shifts his focus, giving prominence to a raw and complex set of ideas about race, sex and art, in the new photos. Harris processes a barrage of popular images concerning black men and interracial homosexuality. Of course, he inserts himself among them: the photos are installed alongside wallpaper repeating an image of Harris posing nude as Narcissus bending over a pool, and the exhibition ends with a darkened room illuminated only by a large backlit transparency of Harris masturbating before a bathroom mirror. But at the center of the show are themes of desire and consumption, particularly as personified by Jeffrey Dahmer, whose cannibalization of minority gay teenagers becomes a metaphor for the veraciousness with which American society consumes fantasies about black men. 

The title of the series, “The Watering Hole, refers to the site where Narcissus became enamored of his reflection, but in this context the phrase also refers to the gay bars where Dahmer met his victims. Nine large-format (40- by-30-inch) photographs suggest the banality of such places, depicting wood paneling covered with snapshots, magazine ads, newspaper clippings and Post-it notes. Printed only slightly larger than life, the photos have the flat mimetic effect of trompe-l’oeil paintings: this imitation of an imitation of reality reiterates the distance between subject and representation in the media images collected by Harris. Letters are loosely stenciled over some of the ephemera: only when several of the photos are seen together is it clear that they spell “DADDY.” Paint dripping from the stencils is echoed in the photos by ejaculatory splatters of red paint and semen. Several distinct interiors are visually recalled, all of them implicitly obsessive and lurid: a tacky suburban bar, an artists studio, a serial killers lair. 

While Dahmer is the ostensible subject of the series, Harris remains intent on making art about art, and about himself. Jasper Johns is invoked repeatedly (by the use of stencils and American flags), while a soft- core ad for Calvin Klein indicates Harris’s source for the wood paneling. One photo includes scribbled notes linking the word “daddy to Dahmer and Robert Mapplethorpe; nearby, Harris is pictured seductively posed as if enticing these white men known for their attraction to black men. By presenting his body as an object of desire, Harris identifies himself with the men desired by Dahmer and Mapplethorpe. Addressing cultural assumptions about the passive victimization of black men, he implies that it’s simplistic to regard the men in Mapplethorpe’s studio and Dahmers basement merely as victimized bodies, overlooking the possibility that they were acting on their own desires when they agreed to model or to be picked up in a bar. In this, Harris brings a new complexity to his self-portraiture: he seems enamored of what he sees of himself in these reflections, however horrific the implications.