New York

Lyle Ashton Harris

Jack Tilton Gallery

In case you don’t already know, the art world is as rife with gangs as any urban ghetto—they have unofficial and sometimes official names (“the Yale Mafia”), turfs, and protocols—and so you have to look past the fact that institutions like the Whitney Independent Study Program seem to act on Lyle Ashton Harris like a sort of Art superego, transforming idlike impulses of creativity into the SoHo equivalent of gang colors and secret handshakes. Harris’ work may toe a certain party line (the interrogation of identity, the deconstruction of gender, class, and ethnicity, etc.), but it does so from above: in The Village Voice, Vince Aletti described the expression Harris typically wears in his photographic self-portraits as “casual, voluptuous contempt,” but in this case maybe looking down is merely symbolic of having risen above.

What differentiates Harris from many of those who fall under the sway of a party line is the affirmative nature of his work. As was perhaps evident in the title of his first New York solo show, “The Good Life,” Harris’ photographs eschew the finger-pointing and/or self-victimizing stance of much art work that purports to engage the construction of identities. His exhibition is one big Yes for both his sexual identity (gay) and ethnicity (black). Portraits of friends and family members don’t even hint at childhood dramas of psychic repression and dirty little Oedipal secrets. If anything, the pictures appear to embrace their sitters, and in this light Harris’ decision to include a large number of photographs taken by his grandfather, Albert Sydney Johnson, Jr., may well constitute another sort of embrace. And if there’s a reason the artist isn’t killing the father in this show, perhaps it’s evident in the pictures of Lyle in drag, Lyle naked, Lyle’s boyfriends mingled in with the formal portraits and informal snapshots of friends and family—it’s as if these two things, family and sexuality, have never been inimical. If Harris embraces his extended family, you get the sense it’s because they’ve always embraced him.

The family, of course, only too often throws a wet blanket on the fire of sexuality, but in the triptych of photographs that comprise the centerpiece of Harris’ exhibit, the two implode into one another in a seeming literalization of brotherly love. Brotherhood, Crossroads and Etcetera, 1994, shows the artist and his brother, Thomas Allen Harris, posing naked against a red, black, and green background reminiscent of the African national flag. The pictures are hardly salacious—neither man even appears to have a hard-on—though they are terrifically sensual, not only because both have handsome, muscular bodies, but because they kiss right on the lips. It’s an embrace with an edge, since it cuts through taboos about overtly sexual contact between members of the same sex and the same family. The brothers also wield a useless prop of a gun in the pictures—in one, Thomas Allen pushes it directly into Lyle’s chest—but there’s absolutely no sense of harm, danger, or aggression. The gun is so drained of lethal connotations that it doesn’t even give the feel of an S/M toy. It certainly doesn’t suggest a phallic symbol either. So why include it in the picture? Perhaps it only serves to highlight how threatening the sexual implications of Harris’ work already are to homo normalis.

Keith Seward