The New York Times

Arts & Leisure, Section 2
September 25th, 1995
From Preppie to Orange Hair in an Amsterdam Minute

Robert Atkins

For Lyle Ashton Harris, taking pictures seems hereditary. His brother, stepfather and grandfather are “fanatically devoted amateurs,” he says, adding that his grandfather has shot more than 10,000 photos of family and friends. But the slender, Bronx-born Mr. Harris is the first to embrace the family pastime as a profession. 

Mr. Harris, 29, who specializes in portraits dealing with race and sexuality, is one of the most sough-after young photographers on the art scene today. At the moment he has a solo show at the Jack Tilton Gallery in Soho (through Oct. 8) and later this season his work will be featured in both the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art” and “Masculine Masquerade” at the prestigious List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

It is only in retrospect that his art career seems preordained – Mr. Harris nearly became an economist, like his grandfather. While on an internship in London sponsored by Wesleyan University, the soft-spoken but garrulous Mr. Harris visited his brother in Amsterdam. “I went over as a preppie,” he said with a chuckle, “and returned with orange hair.”

He also came back determined to be a photographer.

“There was an emotional family scene about it in a restaurant, but they understood.” After graduating from Wesleyan in 1988, he set off on the art-career fast track, earning an M.F.A. at the California Institute of the Arts and studying at the Whitney’s Independent Study Program. Today he spends half the year teaching at the Otis College of At and Design in Los Angeles and divides the other half between his family’s home in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, and his sky lit studio in TriBeCa.

Through his art, he’s trying to make sense of his own complex identity: a gay black man who spent several formative years in Tanzania, where his mother was teaching.

“Gender roles are more fluid there,” he observed. “And I became intrigued by body decoration and adornment.” These interests are visible in the hotly covered, 20-by-24-inch Polaroids on view at Jack Tilton. “Venus Hottentot 2000,” for example, portrays the artist Renee Cox in breast and buttocks-plates, simultaneously celebrating her beauty and parodying a stereotype of African female sexuality. Mt Harris wearing eyeliner and lipstick, appears in a self-portrait as Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian general who led the 18th-century slave revolt against France.

The artist’s racial and cultural concerns encompass both Africa and the African diaspora. In his photographs, the mythological Yoruba trickster Elegba shares space with the black national flag. Mr. Harris’s contribution to last years public art project on West 42nd Street celebrated the legacies of the gay black writers Alice Walker and James Baldwin. 

All these figures: real and literary, dead and alive, African and African American- seem to constitute Mr. Harris’s extended family. 

“Lyle is at the final frontier,” said Thelma Golden, a curator at the Whitney. “He is very much a part of a new generation of post-Civil Rights-era artists who don’t have to chose between their Western and African traditions.”

Mr. Harris agreed. “Their all part of my lineage.”