Lyle Ashton Harris: Child of the 90s

The legal pad placed on a green doily on a kitchen table in Lyle’s photograph reads “Things To Do.” The things listed below collapse the professional with the personal and include: grant applications and reminders; bills and reimbursements; appointments to be scheduled; and errands as imperatives. Sitting alongside a roll of undeveloped film and a drinking glass partially filled with cloudy liquid, this profile of the artist’s ambitions is at once particular and recognizable, part of the viewer’s collective memory, even. Like the rest of Lyle’s Ektachrome Archive of 35 mm photographs shot in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the galleries, nightclubs, and bedrooms of New York, London, Los Angeles, and Rome, this to-do list is a snapshot of the moment when it was taken and a reminder for the artist’s future. It holds an implicit belief that lists can make things happen and that images can create habits.

While I was not there looking through Lyle’s lens, my most lasting childhood memories also revolve around list-making and projected images. One of my primal scenes is centered on my parents’ bedroom, where we would watch Bette Davis and Joan Crawford feud via our VCR and through our box television. Part of this family ritual included my dad’s reference-checking in his bedside copy of the Hollywood almanac and piles of crumpled up legal-pad paper on which he made notes. Laundry lists don’t always resemble family trees, but when I look at the Ektachrome Archive, I see a register of dads. There are the white dads who take road trips to Roman ruins (Tommy Gear) and the black dads who vacation at the Inkwell in Martha’s Vineyard (the poet David Mills) and live with their wives in Sugar Hill (Clarence Otis Jr. and Jacqueline Bradley). There are the trade dads who cruise-stare in your studio and the boy dads who slumber after fucking.

There are the nice dads who recur—in multiple beds and at sun-drenched LA breakfast tables. Intellectual dads like Cornel West lecture at the Studio Museum, while Stuart Hall sits relaxed and engaged over a meal. Art dads like Robert Rauschenberg, who also used photography as a structural suture, and James Van Der Zee, who made an album of another elite black village, appear unwittingly in Lyle’s archive: dads are perhaps best understood as a proxy for the authority to make meaning.

If a search for fathers holds out the sense of longing that gives the archive its pulse, Lyle renders himself most visible through images of women: butches and femmes, high and low, and the viewers who are invited to look at them. bell (hooks), Cathy (Opie), and Nan (Goldin) are constants: self-reflexive big-ups for the archive’s ideology, ethos, style. Lyle and his photo-sister Iké Udé celebrate birthdays, drink espressos, and read magazines in round-framed sunglasses, bloodred lipsticks, and dangling cigarettes that annotate their ’90s glamour. Of course, the person who is always there— caught informally in her home, adorned in a fur hat; on the verge of sleep, at the edge of her couch; at Aquinnah’s red rocks, in her bright bathing suit and braids—is Mother. Rudean Leinaeng appears in the archive, but she is more than a witness; she is its accomplice. Looking after these transparencies in their interregnum between memento and art, she was there all along. Mother’s there next to Marlon Riggs as Jean Riggs, sitting solemnly in the backseat of a town car or hearse, next to her mother and with her arm around her son and her hand in his. There She is in Essex Hemphill’s 1986 cruising manifesto, “In the Life,” when he wrote to Her: “If one of these thick-lipped, wet, black nights, while I’m out walking, I find freedom in this village. If I can take it with my tribe I’ll bring you here.” Lyle’s pictured his village; She can testify whether freedom’s been found.