The New York Times
September 30th, 1994
Jack Tilton Gallery
The Good Life
Art in Review
Family photos with a difference – Photocopies with paint – A curator back behind the lens – The discreet charm of ingenuousness.
Lyle Ashton Harris – ‘The Good Life’
Jack Tilton Gallery, 41 Greene Street, SoHo, Through Oct. 8
Lyle Ashton Harris’s first New York solo show is in large part a collaborative effort. The 29-year-artist Intersperses his own photographs with those of his grandfather, Albert Sydney Johnson Jr. a nonprofessional photographer, and uses various members of his immediate family as models in emblematic tableaux and portraits.
Chronologically, the show begins with Mr. Johnson’s pictures. Small but many, they are the equivalent of – home movies, records of middle- class American life with its graduations and marriages, children and grandchildren, shot both in black and white and in slightly overexposed color. Among the people who appear in the pictures are Mr. Ashton Harris’s parents and brother and the artist himself .as a remarkably self-possessed child gesturing toward the camera.
It is a role Mr. Ashton Harris continues to relish, as is evident in several large self-portraits on view. In the gender-bending “Saint Michael Stewart (named for a young black man who died in police custody same years ago). Mr. Ashton Harris wears bath lavish makeup and a New York City police uniform; and in “Tommy and Lyle, Vancouveur, Washington he appears nude and reflected in a mirror as he photographs a friend’s family photos lined up on a bedroom bureau.
Questions of sexual and ethnic identity are the core elements in Mr. Ashton Harris’s work and he continues to explore them in the series of opulently colored family portraits. He poses his grandfather with a tribal chief’s staff and places all his sitters against time red, green and black pattern of Marcus Garvey’s African national flag to suggest changes in an African-American self-image over the last four decades.
The results can be overly stagey (three very large self-portraits of Mr. Ashton Harris with his brother are two too many), but the show as a whole links up complicated, potentially prickly elements – past and present, family and friends, black and white, gay and straight – in a rich pattern of off-rhythms and generates a spirit of great warmth and candor. In the long run, that warmth, seldom encountered in contemporary art, is the real attraction here.