p. 92 & 93
September 4th, 2005
Blood, Sweat and Tears

Wayne Northcross

A book of Lyle Ashton Harris’ latest self-portraits showcases the photographer’s obsession with the performative elements of race, gender and sexuality. Lyle Ashton Harris is an artistic chameleon. He is a drag echo of Billie Holiday. He is a blur of Josephine Baker. He is a battered boxer in a jock strap, crying tears of blood. He is all of these images intertwined in a new book about four recent series of his self-portraiture, titled, Lyle Ashton Harris.

Harris, a black, gay photographer who originally gained worldwide renown with his self-portraits in whiteface in the late 1980s, continues to push all the envelopes with moody images that filter race, sexuality and gender through a shadowy prism. In the four overlapping series of work the book compiles-titled Billie, Josephine, Jen e sais quoi and Memoirs of Hadrian-Harris channels the glamorous yet tragic jazz singer Billie Holiday, who assailed by chemical demons, became the poster child for sublime suffering; the sexual vanguard Josephine Baker, who was despised for her race in her homeland and fetishized for it in another; and the unnamed boxer, who, sporting just a jockstrap and boxing gloves, pantomimes the sexual agony/ ecstasy of a bloodied yet determined prize fighter.

As Holiday, Harris is beautifully done up in the vocalist’s signature pearls and upswept coiffure, white gardenia tucked as always, behind one ear. His lipstick-glossed mouth is open wide, offering a soul wrenching song, yet his face is frequently obscured by shadow suggesting at once Holidays shrinking stage presence, soulfully corrosive voice and the tragedy of her downfall. 

In the Memoirs of Hadrian series named for Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel about the Roman emperor struggling between personal and professional passions, Harris explores themes of masculinity and race. Collages of scattered Polaroids of the boxer, other unidentified men and Grace Jones album covers-all of Which seem to be haphazardly arranged and smeared with blood- resemble adolescent shrines to feminine glamour, masculine aggression and romantic crushes.

Accompanied by a poetic essay by Anna Deavere Smith, a playwright and friend of the artist, the book reads like a memoir of Harris’ life and work, riffing on such themes as media representation of black male bodies, the tortured life of an outcast in a white gay world and the quest of personhood in a world that too often denies it.