The 13th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA VOOM) recognize the contributions of individuals who, through their work, talent and dedication, strengthen our communities and reinforce the mission of Visual AIDS. This year Visual AIDS is proud to honor Lyle Ashton Harris, Thomas Allen Harris and Steed Taylor.
Below, Visual AIDS interviews artist and scholar Malik Gaines about Lyle Ashton Harris' creative practice and liveliness.
VA: The work "Counterpublicity" by My Barbarian—the collective of which you are a part—was commissioned by Visual AIDS alongside Lyle's video "Selections from the Ektachrome Archive" for the 25th Anniversary of Day With(out) Art. You've spoken to the impact and influence of Lyle's video on you. Can you elaborate here?
Malik Gaines: Day With(out) Art is an chance for broad historical reflection and for underscoring the AIDS crisis in the present, but for many, the history and presence of that crisis is deeply personal. My Barbarian’s piece “Counterpublicity,” which adapts passages from José Esteban Muñoz’s chapter of the same name, as well as scenes from MTVs “The Real World,” and TLC’s “Waterfalls,” allowed us to dress up like we did in the early 90s. Doing so around the age of 40 made me think about the many people who didn’t ever get to be that old, including Pedro Zamora, the activist who is central to both that TV show and Muñoz’s text. I think many gays my age fantasize about how all of the death in that era that separated us from people we should have known before we really got to be out in the world. But that fantasy occludes some of the living that has always gone on. Lyle’s “Ektachrome Archive” shows some amazing people who have passed, but also shows a lot of life, thanks to people like Lyle who defeated history.
VA: What are a few of your favorite images from Lyle's "Ektachrome Archive," or his other bodies of work?
Malik Gaines: I was recently in a collector’s home in New York and saw Lyle’s “Americas Triptych” from the late 80s, in which Lyle and another model pose in whiteface in three high-contrast, black and white, intimately framed portraits. These figures offer both fragments of costumes that suggest a masquerade of gender and nationality, but also some of the pair’s bodies are revealed, offering more than one kind of contrast with the made up faces. I really enjoy the pleasure that Lyle brings to the travesty of U.S. American femininity, an apparent joy at having a body, and a mischievous extra-ness in the made-up facial expression, meeting the camera’s gaze straight on. The third photo in the series is sometimes seen standing alone, as “Miss America,” a femme figure in whiteface with a flag draped across her shoulders and one breast revealed. I borrowed an edition of this work from a collector in Los Angeles for an exhibition I curated there in 2004, “Fade: African American Artists in Los Angeles,” which surveyed works by black contemporary artists who had lived in or moved through Los Angeles, as Lyle did during his time at CalArts. I didn’t know him then, but I knew that this work brought queer performance ideas into the language of post-conceptual forms and racial critique that black artists introduced into contemporary art in the late 80s and early 90s, forever amending the whiteness of that world. Lyle queered that amendment, and we’re all better for it.
VA: When did you first meet Lyle, and do you have a favorite anecdote or two about your personal connection or engagement with his art over the years?
Malik Gaines: I didn’t meet Lyle until a couple of years ago, probably at a party he was throwing for a mutual friend. We’ve worked together on a class project for our NYU students for which he graciously opened up his beautiful studio for workshops. I love his work style: very present, immediate, go go go. The opposite of me. Many of us will always remember Lyle’s major intervention at a Whitney Museum program that discussed racially controversial work that had been shown there. Rather than letting the event come to a prematurely convenient end, Lyle paraded up and down in front of the stage, before the hundreds in attendance, warning the organizers that this is not “a kumbaya moment.” Malia Obama was in the audience and I hope she’ll remember this too.
VA: Describe Lyle Ashton Harris in a sentence.
Malik Gaines: A dashing artist, full of energy, legendary.
Malik Gaines is based in New York, where he is assistant professor of Performance Studies in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. His book, Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left (NYU Press, 2017), traces a circulation of political ideas in performances of the 1960s and beyond. His essays have appeared in Art Journal, Women & Performance, e-flux, and in many exhibition catalogues and arts publications. Since 2000, he has performed and exhibited widely with the group My Barbarian, whose work has been included in the Whitney Biennial, two Performa Biennials, the Montreal Biennial and the Baltic Triennial, among others.
For more than two decades Lyle Ashton Harris (born 1965, New York) 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. Harris has exhibited work widely, including at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York) and The Whitney Museum of American Art (New York) among many others, as well as at international biennials (São Paulo, 2016; Busan, 2008; Venice, 2007; Seville, 2006; Gwangju, 2000). His work is represented in the permanent collections of major museums, most recently The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Having studied at Wesleyan University, the California Institute of the Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program, Harris is currently an Associate Professor of Art and Art Education at New York University. Harris created Selections from the Ektachrome Archive, 1986–1996 for ALTERNATE ENDINGS, Visual AIDS' video program distributed internationally for Day With(out) Art 2014.