by Christopher Hutchinson
For more than two decades Lyle Ashton Harris has cultivated a diverse artistic practice ranging from photographic media, collage, installation and performance. His work explores intersections between the personal and the political, examining the impact of ethnicity, gender and desire on the contemporary social and cultural dynamic. Known for his self-portraits and use of pop culture icons (such as Billie Holiday and Michael Jackson), Harris teases the viewers’ perceptions and expectations, resignifying cultural cursors and recalibrating the familiar with the extraordinary. His work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the 52nd Venice Biennale. His work has been acquired by major international museums, most recently by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His commissioned work has been featured in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker. In 2014 Harris joined the board of trustees at the American Academy in Rome and was named the 10th recipient of the David C. Driskell Prize by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Born in New York City, Harris spent his formative years in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. He received his Bachelor of Arts with Honors from Wesleyan University in 1988 and a Masters in Fine Arts from the California Institute of the Arts in 1990. He currently lives and works in New York City and is an Associate Professor at New York University. http://www.lyleashtonharris.com/about/
Lyle Ashton Harris is considered to be a pioneer in Postcolonial art, in which his collaboration with Renee Cox has a very important dialogue about blackness with the residue of Colonialism. One of the goals of Postcolonialism is to be aware of the far reaching effects of Colonialism and then ultimately to rewrite that history. To this end Lyle Ashton Harris has an important place in the legacy of art history. It was with this knowledge and hope that attendance to the HIGH museum lecture in Atlanta on January 15, 2015 became mandatory.
For the exhibition Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire (1995), Lyle Ashton Harris in collaboration with Renee Valerie Cox created the photograph, “Venus Hottentot 2000.” In this futuristic reinterpretation of the Hottentot Venus, Renee Valerie Cox directly inserts her own body into the historical matrix of Western representations that configured black female sexuality. In the photograph Cox’s body is transformed, recalling the Hottentot Venus, with the addition of protruding metallic breasts and an accompanying metal butt extension. The white strings that delicately hold these metallic body parts in place with bow, seem to emphasize the artists’ complex and ambivalent relationships to representations of black female sexuality. Cox wears the metallic appendages like a costume or disguise, but her own nude body is simultaneously revealed to the viewer. She stands in profile emphasizing her bodily dimensions, hands akimbo, and stares directly at the viewer.“Hottentot 2000″ is one photograph in a series by Harris called The Good Life, 1994. https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/postcolonialstudies/2014/06/21/postcolonial-performance-and-installation-art/
Harris then proceeded to deliver one of the most disappointing and disturbing lectures, a litany of name-dropping and external references to other famous artists and philosophers that was far from Postcolonial thoughts except for the engagement of the “Other”–the “Other” is not the only point of Postcolonialism. He bounced from topic to topic in flurry of art speak that was intended to connect conflicting concepts that did not really apply to his own praxis. Harris discussed his overall career as a photographer moving through collage, portraiture, and performance art. The audience suffered through an amateurish performance about Michael Jackson and the homeless that was poorly executed. The lecture ended with a slideshow of all his notable acquaintances over an amped up Grace Jones track with his voice competing with it. After suffering though, it became clear the one consistent in Harris’ methodology is appropriation of established Western thought. Postcolonialism is not interested in appropriating the West. Appropriating the West can only result in the promotion of the residual effects of colonialism, not ending them.
What exactly is special to Harris’ art practice to be so well received?
Prince began appropriating photographs in 1975. His image, Untitled (Cowboy), a “rephotograph” of a photograph taken originally by Sam Abell and appropriated from a cigarette advertisement, was the first “rephotograph” to raise more than $1 million at auction when it was sold at Christie’sNew York in 2005. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Prince
Harris’s collages aren’t technically collages at all; a rebus picture puzzle would be more accurate. These “collages” don’t overlap, are relatively the same-sized images, with almost the exact same space around each image. All point to a lack of mastery of medium/process. It is a visual dumbing down of two-dimensional space while referencing Picasso and Duchamp. So what if the images were rephotographed. How does that knowledge add to the importance of the concept? During the lecture Harris went into great detail when it came to the medium and rambled when it came to the work, overcompensating with name-dropping and large scale. The lecture had all the earmarks of the student who has not taken the time to write out his artist statement.
Harris discussed his collage Blow Up IV and how the main image relates to Manet’s Olympia and how the drips in the middle are semen. Once again an external reference used to lend importance to a sloppily executed artwork.
Harris described this NY Times commission on which he was charged to go to Africa and document Africans with some form of technology to which the above image and others were taken. This is no different than Manet’s Olympia with the spectacle of Blackness. Something that was intended to prove Africans modernity actually promotes Otherness.
The Decisive Moment
Henri Cartier-Bresson is considered to be the father of modern photojournalism. His style of “street photography,” using small format cameras, still influences modern photojournalists to this day.
In the documentary above, Henri Cartier-Bresson describes the elusive decisive moment, which cannot be staged or faked. Once it’s happened, that’s it. Bresson allows for this moment to occur while paying attention to composition. His composition affirms the narrative of the decisive moment. Lyle Ashton Harris relies only upon shock and icon to force the viewer into a narrative that he has constructed. It’s a burden that shock and icon cannot satisfy.
Christopher Hutchinson is an accomplished Jamaican conceptual artist, professor and contributor to the art community as a writer, critic and founder of the nonprofit Smoke School of Art. He is a Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and has been featured as a lecturer including prestigious engagements at University of Alabama and the Auburn Avenue Research Library. For two decades, Chris has been a practicing artist. His works have been exhibited in internationally recognized institutions including City College New York (CUNY) and featured at the world’s leading international galleries such as Art Basel Miami. He has always had an innate passion for creating spaces where Africans and people of African descent contribute to an inclusive contemporary dialogue—ever evolving, not reflexive but pioneering. This requires challenging the rubric of the canon of art history, a systemic space of exclusion for the Other: women and non-Whites, and where necessary he rewrites it. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama.