November, 2003

Martha Schwendener


Over the course of his career, Lyle Ashton Harris has moved among installation, video, and photography, often combining the three. His most recent show found him focusing on a single medium, however, and his favorite subject: himself. The twelve large-format Polaroid photographs on view (all works 2002) were all titled “Memoirs of Hadrian, after a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar that takes the form of a letter from Emperor Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius. In eight of the photographs, Harris poses as a pugilist, bruised and bloodied, wearing boxing gloves and a white jockstrap. (Signifiers of imperial Rome are nowhere in sight.) In the rest he appears as a shadowy figure, photographed behind a sheet of Plexiglas covered with drips and smears. Tacked to the Plexi in the photo are smaller Polaroids of objects (mouthpiece, boxing gloves).

Each large-scale Polaroid bears a distinct painterly quality. The surfaces are smooth, but from a short distance they look like expressionist canvases of some kind. The Polaroids within the large-scale Polaroid create a collage effect in the final product that mimics the layering of pigment on canvas. But unlike a painting, each successive layer is transparent, because a photograph of a photograph adds rather than conceals visual information.

Taut and lean and lustrous, these images of Harris call up historical shots of black athletes, and the evident reflexivity-shading-into-narcissism signals an ongoing engagement with a set of issues the artist has explored before: black male and/or black gay identity. But-aside from homosocial/sexual considerations of hand-to-hand combat-somehow those issues were not explicit enough in this body of work. Clues that Harris has often included elsewhere (from family photos to references to Jeffrey Dahmer) are absent here, and a greater load is placed on the shoulders of Harris as subject.

In three of the works, Harris appears almost as if shot through a sheet of rain. This blurring or semi-erasure is reminiscent of whole bodies of work that strive to address issues of visibility vis-à-vis race and gender. Just as Yourcenar’s letter recipient is never given a voice, Harris’s opponent in the ring is never shown. But in fact, naming the project after Yourcenar’s text hinders rather than helps, and the putative imperial Harris/boxing/Rome connection never justifies itself at all. (Learning that Harris spent a year in Rome as an American Academy fellow adds nothing.) The idea of the artist as battered boxer is at once imprecise and heavy-handed; the works leave us to wonder how the images relate either to their stated inspiration or to Harris’s project more generally.