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"Lyle Ashton Harris: Self/Portrait" and "as it is, as it could be: Expanding the Walls 2011" at The Studio Museum in Harlem

By S. Kat Harris
Posted Sep 10, 2011 in
I'm a little embarrassed to admit that, despite a few stints as a resident and affinity for the neighborhood, I recently visited The Studio Museum in Harlem for the first time this past (Target Free) Sunday. (Every Sunday is free, mind you.)
I was surprised to discover how intimate, in scale, the space is but not surprised at how full of the rich history, vibrant present, and promising future of art from the African diaspora it is. Even so, the intimacy evoked by the space is not restricted to its physical dimensions. Like the two exhibits that I was most drawn to (this time), Lyle Ashton Harris: Self/Portrait and as it is, as it could be: Expanding the Walls 2011, the atmosphere and impact of the Museum and its collection are both personal and profound, intimate and iconic.
The 22 "large-format" "'Chocolate Polariods'" on display as part of the Lyle Ashton Harris: Self/Portrait exhibit are aptly described on the introductory placard as "simultaneously intimate and larger than life— [with the subjects] towering before, and making themselves vulnerable to, onlookers." Indeed, I was struck by how provocative, intriguing, and emotionally engaging giant, relatively simple headshots, in essence, could be (which reminded me of why good ones are so important for actors).
Juxtapose photographs of the backs of those subjects' heads and, as the placard also alludes, multiple literal and metaphorical perspectives, including meditations on time and the interconnectedness of individual and community, are thrown into the thematic mix. This is fitting considering the multi-layered meaning, and ultimate function as a "visual autobiography," of the expansive series - spanning ten years and consisting of the artist and over 200 sitters from his social and professional circles, including many New Yorkers - from which these 22 pieces are extracted.
Harris' compelling series represents the aforementioned vibrant present in contemporary art while the photography of NYC high schoolers displayed in as it is, as it could be: Expanding the Walls 2011 exhibits (pun intended) the field's bright future. Framed by and in dialogue with archival photographs of Harlem life taken by James VanDerZee (1886–1983), the exhibition, which, as stated on its designated microsite, "explores and grapples with the present while simultaneously imagining what the future might hold," is the culmination of an annual, eight-month photography course called Expanding the Walls: Making Connections Between Photography, History and Community.
Detail of Sapphire Hilton's "Lights, Camera," 2011
The in-house portion of the exhibit contains two images and a synopsis of the aesthetic of each of the students featured on as it is, as it could be's microsite. Conceptually and visually it is a dynamic, stunning body of work. As someone who is grateful for her broadened horizons and lauds programs like Expanding the Walls, I was thrilled and honored to behold the talent of this group of young people. Whether or not they pursue professional careers as visual artists, it is wonderful that they had this opportunity to develop their craft and an appreciation for photography and art, in general, where some of them might not have otherwise.
Along with its fine collection, The Studio Museum in Harlem's formal and informal education and outreach efforts make it a gem in the community. In addition to Target Free Sundays and important programs like Expanding the Walls, visitors are privy to free, potentially collectible printed materials like Studio, the Museum's quarterly magazine; a Lyle Ashton Harris: Self/Portrait poster; and a postcard from the current Harlem Postcards: Spring 2011 exhibit. Reflecting on my time last Sunday, I can't help but imagine that the next Lyle Ashton Harris or, heck, the first Sapphire Hilton will have been inspired by visits to the friendly neighborhood museum and/or debuted her work via one of its programs.
In the meantime, check out the work of the current Lyle Ashton Harris and Sapphire Hilton and her peers in Lyle Ashton Harris: Self/Portrait and as it is, as it could be: Expanding the Walls 2011, respectively, until October 23, 2011.
1) Lyle Ashton Harris' Untitled (Face #159 Anna), 2006 and Untitled (Back #159 Anna), 2006 (from
2) Detail of Sapphire Hilton's Lights, Camera, 2011 (thumbnail from
Article first published as Art Reviews: Lyle Ashton Harris: Self/Portrait and as it is, as it could be: Expanding the Walls 2011 at The Studio Museum in Harlem on Blogcritics.