New Art Examiner

December, 1994

S.M. Canning

“Identity politics,” those overused buzzwords of contemporary discourse, aptly describe Lyle Ashton Harris’s recent installation at the Jack Tilton Gallery. Fortunately far the viewer, the artist’s personal accent on the politics of self- representation allowed the work’s provocation to be tempered with poignancy.

The idea of tradition exists in everyone’s history no matter their ethnic background, but for the black male, that legacy is particularly hard to picture. As represented by contemporary film and television, he is rootless, outside of family, without a past. Harris’s own family portrait corrected this misguided script.

Hanging photographs taken by his grandfather, Albert Sydney Johnson, Jr., his brother Thomas Allen, and friends alongside his own work, Harris contextualizes his identity, intertwining an intimate narrative of an artist’s life with a heritage of older generations, Black Power, and the quest for pan-Africanism.

Appearances can be deceptive, however, and in Harris’s case, artifice, whether lushly conveyed in the intensity of color portraits or modeled flamboyantly by the artist in drag, was used to successfully challenge stereotypic notions of race, gender, and class. The artist’s strategy was clear from the start. On one wall he dressed up as Toussaint L’Ouverture, the former slave and leader of the Haitian revolution. The heritage of slaves then gave way to large-format photographs of grandparents, aunts, and mother, finishing with a portrait of the artist and his brother as Bloomsbury intellectuals. 

On the opposite wall the artist began as a smiling afro-coifed child of the 7Os and ended up a cultural critic. Four framed photographs complete with title plaques formed the nexus of Harris’s social commentary, with Saint Michael Stewart the most effective of the group. In this piece the artist, wearing a police uniform and a disarmingly sweet smile, shyly assumes the identity of a young black man from New York who died while in police custody.

Gleefully upending notions of normal and queer, Harris fabricated as many identities as his audience wanted, faltering only in the large Brotherhood, Crossroads and Etcetera #1. Hoping to generate reaction by posing naked with his brother as a Pieta, kissing enemies, and finally embracing twins who aim a pistol at the audience, the artist became lost in confrontations didacticism. Far more involving were the photos that followed on blackened walls, including the rawly powerful Alex and Dennis at Renee’s, Tommy and Lyle, Vancouver, Washington, and Exfoliation. This last photograph aptly summed up Harris’s meditation on the veils of disguise and disclosure that layer identities.

Using a simple scene of mirror reflection and the ploy of a reaction shot, Harris subtly and deftly depicts the abhorrence a legacy of difference and otherness brings to those who choose to transgress social convention.