October, 1996
Lyle Ashton Harris
JACK TILTON Through October 5

By Peter Clothier

Those familiar with the exquisitely precise photographic conceits that earned Lyle Ashton Harris his early reputation will find themselves challenged by this current installation c led The Watering Hole. Its multiple wall-size panels, mirrors, and photographic murals offer an extended, often painful, but richly complex rumination on the mytho-cultural implications of the real- life horror story of Jeffrey Dahmer, whose abduction, sexual exploitation, slaughtering, and partial cannibalization of mostly black young men made lurid headlines in 1991. 

The hardboard panels placed against the gallery walls are intended to recall at once the stark environment of a gay bar and the horrific banality of Dahmer’s apartment. The eye is invited to pick a path through the ragged, seemingly haphazard series of visual materials plastered on the panels: scrawled, personal Post-it notes in neon colors, celebrity magazine covers, news clippings and texts, homosexual erotica, full-color advertisements designed to market products through the allure of the human body. Increasingly, as it works, the eye finds images repeated, mirrored, serialized, manipulated, transformed to textual reference and back again to image, until their fun-house surrealness becomes obsessive to the point of claustrophobia. Spattered with ejaculations of glistening gold paint or the pithy contempt of homophobic and racist graffiti, they confront us with our complicity in a culture whose mindless consumption and excretion extends to its own members. 

The overall tone of this uneasy work is elegiac. In a daring step beyond accessible product, Harris abandons the distancing comforts of esthetic elegance to engage us in the

shadowy arena between body shame and showy narcissism, fear and desire, expectation and ambivalence, inviting us to track with him the inner processes of consciousness and conscience. For a viewer willing to travel with him, it’s a rewarding journey.