October 2nd, 2008
Lyle Ashton Harris: Blow Up at the UB Art Gallery
Black & White

Currently on view at the UB Center for the Arts is the work of fine art photographer and New York Times photojournalist Lyle Ashton Harris.

Photographer Lyle Ashton Harris’s self-portrait as Billie Holiday.
Harris’s work spans two decades and comprises three major phases: from self-portraiture to social commentary on the Western portrayal of the black male, and finally documentary photography of contemporary street life in Ghana and Italy.

Harris, like Cindy Sherman, masks his own body in a variety of guises for his self-portraits. He portrays himself in the role of Billie Holliday, a boxer, a police officer. His work seeks to undermine traditional gender roles and blurs the divisions between masculine and feminine.

As Billie Holliday he is soft, velvety, and floral. As a boxer he is muscle, swagger, and aggression. As a NYPD officer he is cloaked in a uniform, which connotes authority and manliness, an impression that is completely turned around when we look closer and see that he is wearing lipstick and eyeliner. Harris says, “As Billie Holliday, I use beauty to bring the viewer in but I also want them to be confronted by that beauty. I’m interested in the boundaries between what we are repulsed and attracted to.”

These images are reminiscent of the Mapplethorpe’s gelatin prints of black bodybuilders, which eroticized African-American males.

Harris’s critical pieces on modern advertising include large, Rauschenberg-like pieces painted by Ghana’s street sign painters. These are collages of various flyers and ads, many of them barbershop signs.

One piece consists of an Adidas ad with the soccer player Zidane lying prostrate on a table, smiling up at and receiving a foot rub by, as Harris describes it, “an unidentified brown figure.” The image stirs up several controversial subtexts. The frankly homoerotic undercurrent also contains racist and classist overtones. “I want to see how desire is constructed in advertising,” Harris says. He compares it in an art historical context to Manet’s painting Olympia, of a French prostitute being served by a black male servant, which was met with scandal when first revealed to the public.

Since 2005, Harris has shifted away from conceptual studio photography to working outdoors. “It has been an act of removing oneself from performative gestures,” he says.

These images are another development in his growth as an artist, from the self-reflective portraits to works on a larger, anthropological scale.

Bourgeoisie, shot this year by Harris, is a monumental—10 feet by 12 feet—black-and-white photograph printed in several sections. The image is of a crowd at a Roman soccer match. Harris is critical of Italian society, seeking to examine particularly issues of xenophobia and anti-Semitism among those in power. We scan the crowd for recognizable faces—their attention is held steadfast by the action on the field. One notices right away that the crowd is overwhelmingly wealthy and white. The women are in designer fashions and the men are in suits and ties. Harris has also documented the street life of Italy, where he randomly shoots strangers interacting in a crowd or by themselves.

Harris spends a third of each year in Ghana and has been documenting the changes going on in modern Africa’s first independent country.

In Ghana he details the growing modernity of the nation by photographing a series of individuals with now ubiquitous cell phones. There are shots of fishermen on the West Coast of Africa and fruit sellers at the market conducting business. He is fascinated by their cosmopolitanism, a feature of their society many would not expect.

Blow Up is on view at the UB Art Gallery in UB’s Center for the Arts until Saturday, October 18 (645-6912 /