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San Francisco Examiner

February 4th, 1998
Alchemy

David Bonetti

Through March 14, New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom St., is featuring “Alchemy”, multimedia collaboration between brothers Thomas Allen Harris and Lyle Ashton Harris. Both Harrises have received a lot of attention in recent years, Thomas Allen as a filmmaker, Lyle Ashton as a photographer, but this is the first time they have worked together at such scale. (The installation was sponsored by New Langton Arts and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it will be seen after closing here.) 

“Alchemy” is an ambitious and richly evocative installation about the search for an African-derived spirituality. Although looking to the past, it is rooted in the present. High technology is used to explore pre-modern, non-Western cosmologies. 

You enter a dark space. Out of the murk, lush, richly colored images, some still, some moving, emerge. Before you is a large color photograph of the Mother – a strikingly handsome black woman in profile with golden eye makeup and a white dove on her shoulder. In the distance, to the right, a film projection shows a thin young man, his body dusted with white powder, dancing in ecstasy to the point of collapse in a forest. The musical accompaniment is of the ping-ping-boom school of new-age techno. 

“Alchemy takes you on a tour of African-inspired spiritual practices that most likely no African would recognize. In one print, a large, bald, nude, white-powdered man, wearing a pretentious, over- scaled necklace, stands column- like against a concrete wall. In an- other, several groups of people pose, looking as if they’re waiting to audition for Federico Fellini. In a third, a nude man painted blue with a mask painted on his face sits in the corner of a blue-walled room while a woman in a blue shift sits on a trapeze. 

In one of the films, a woman with feathers in her hair walks into the ocean. In another, two men wrap another man in white gauze and sprinkle red rose petals over him. 

Visually arresting as it is, “Alchemy is still troubling. You get the feeling that spirituality is being played with superficially. Many of the images of handsome people wearing or not wearing exotic outfits might move seamlessly from the installation into the pages of a fashion magazine. Western artists have always gone to Africa (or India, or Mexico, or…) for infusion of fresh imagery and energy. I suppose young African American artists can do the same without criticism; however, something about it just doesn’t sit right. 

By David Bonetti – Examiner Art Critic