Ecstasy #1

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  • Provenance

    Salon 94, New York

  • Catalogue Essay

    LYLE ASHTON HARRIS
    Born 1965, Bronx, NY
    Lives and works in New York, NY

    1990 MFA, California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA
    1988 BFA, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT

    Selected honors: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2016), David C. Driskell Prize (2014), Goddard Award (2009), American Academy in Rome Fellow (2001).
    Selected museum exhibitions and performances: the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; New Museum, New York; American Academy in Rome; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
    Selected public collections: the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, León, Spain; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


    For the past three decades, Lyle Ashton Harris has cultivated a diverse multi-media artistic practice that explores ideas of gender, sexuality, belonging, and various cultural histories. Harris emerged as an artist in the late 1980s with his black-and-white photographic body of work that saw him employ self-portraiture as the means to tease out the intersections of ethnicity, gender and sexual desire. Viewers’ perceptions and expectations are subtly confronted by recalibrating the familiar with the unexpected as Harris uses his body as a canvas to act out various roles and states of being.

    For his Ecstasy series, Harris posed in whiteface, his mouth wide-open and limbs tensed to deliberately confuse the viewer’s ability to pinpoint the gender and ethnic identify displayed. Harris, who is African American and gay, explained in conversation with artist Chuck Close in 1999, “I began taking self-portraits in the 1980s to explore the dissonance and ambivalence I experienced in relation to my own image.” While confronting the viewer with an American racial archetype of the whiteface, the images also more broadly invoke the notion of passing, the forsaking of one’s identity in favor of a more socially accepted assimilation. Harris’s use of photography points to its loaded history of functioning as a documentary tool to categorize blackness in the 19th century.

    These early works garnered Harris considerable international critical acclaim, leading to his first major solo exhibition Face at the New Museum in 1993, and his inclusion in the seminal Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art group exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, that travelled to the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, in 1994.

    In a period when multiculturalism, identity politics and AIDS activism dominated the world stage, Harris’s work transformed the conversation around black masculinity. Harris’s childhood years were formative in his artistic sensibility. Born and raised in the Bronx, he spent two years in Tanzania with his mother and brother in the mid-1970s, during the height of the African Independence movement. “Being in a community where there was a plurality of identity, there was an openness and a gentleness. In Tanzania, there was much more fluidity around masculinity,” he recalled. “I grew up in a family where there was a consciousness around images, photography, and black representation… Visually, I understood at an early age the power of the image to control or to liberate. I don’t want to engage that binary exclusively because I think it is more complex than that but I do understand energetically how people can be transformed by the image, not only in the art world but on a larger scale.”

    Driven by his belief in the transformative power of the image, Harris has in the years since continued to concern himself with the game of appearances and perception by equally employing photography, video, audio, collage, installation and performance. Harris’s work calls attention to the fiction of the constructed image in both the private and political realm by performing and reinterpreting the legacies of iconic figures from Cleopatra, Billie Holiday to Michael Jackson.

15

Ecstasy #1

gelatin silver print
60 x 40 in. (152.4 x 101.6 cm.)
Photographed in 1987-1988 and printed in 1997, this work is number 3 from an edition of 6 plus 2 artist's proofs.

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AMERICAN AFRICAN AMERICAN

New York Selling Exhibition 10 January - 8 February 2019