Memoirs of Hadrian
“Memoirs of Hadrian”
CRG Gallery, September 4-October 18, 2003
‘LYLE ASHTON HARRIS’
Exhibitionistic nod to Marguerite Yourcenar’s eponymous classic, invites contradiction. Start with his series of twelve “unique 20 by 24 inch color Polaroids, many of which look black and white, the images themselves a cross-process result in which a color “negative is fused to a monochrome “positive. To see the world beyond merely black-and-white into various browns is somehow being begged. Then consider “size, the snapshot’s familiar scale suddenly made bigger-than-life yet smaller than life-size, the enlargements of art unable to compensate entirely for the reductions imposed by life. More than documenting the moment, Polaroids are all about instant gratification, the very quality Harris seems to most resist. Eschewing the instant-caught-in- time, his images are all pose, carefully layered investigations that are less a race against time than a time against race.
Yourcenar’s fiction ruminates on a non fictional moment in Roman history: the passing of the baton from an aging Hadrian to a spry Aurelius. We read Yourcenar knowing that the Empire already has fallen. How then are we to regard Harris posing as a gladiatorial light-weight boxer in half of the shots, our hero sporting gloves and a large-sized jockstrap labeled “The Duke, guarding as it were his duchy: his concealed supported sex. His mouthguard’s absence, notable in the open mouthed shots, suggests a silence finally broken by an anguished cry. The remaining Polaroids in the exhibition try to conceal our protagonist behind a Plexiglas “shield collaged with articles stripped from the artist’s boxing self (glove, mouth guard, news print, actual-sized Polaroids, an album cover of Grace Jones’s Portfolio)-each talismanic object unable to keep our fighter from harm’s reach. The blood red hues
staining two of these “shields suggest the damage already done, blood-black rivulets previously seen dripping down his skull.
Harris asks us to constantly reframe his minimal narrative with varying degrees of light exposure from print to print, some shots bearing the merest black-and- white outlines “bleeding into shadows, others exploding into full-blown disclosures awash in color, each instant suggesting that we as “spectators might well be the “unseen opponents. As viewers, we are implicated for buying into such entertainments, whether it be Muhammad Au in the ring or Grace Jones nightclubbing on stage, post-slave commerce trafficking in race and all its displays of athletic/artistic prowess, whether framed by album cover, newspaper story, or just an over-sized Polaroid. Here, the great collective talents of an African-American past are reduced to consumer- ready objects, such a legacy then magnified through multiples delivered to a mass produced market hungry to receive such cast off projections masquerading as some kind of triumphal fantasy.
We are left with a dozen “unique poster-sized Polaroids, each staged performance not to be repeated, such wounded gestures an affront to celebrity status. Are such objects suitable for home decoration? Should this series be “sold off piecemeal, thus fracturing the narrative further? Of course our artist/hero is free to make new “editions, to endlessly replicate this self-image till all demands are met, the market saturated, and all eyes have had their fill. But for now, he seems to remain a rarity. There is something terribly lonely about our boxed-in boxer pathetically protecting his own box, and steadily losing, afflicted by the brutal ecstasies of the moment. And if we lower our gazes, would he be left opponent- less, merely to stage his own aloneness in a theater of one? For this martyr, all is seemingly restraint-glove, jock, mouth guard-each an obstacle to our artist’s desired release.