PHILADELPHIA — These days, if we were asked if hell is real, some people might propose that we’re living it. In his current exhibition at Temple University’s Center for the Humanites, Dis-placed by Conflict, Theodore A. Harris, who mostly works in collage, leaves no doubt that the flames have been here for some time.
Harris places Malcolm X in the center of the triptych, “War Dialectic” (2007), from the Collage and Conflict series, splicing in images of Mt. Rushmore, along with soldiers positioned behind sand bags, their rifles aimed at unknown targets. They are in a battle we see only in fragments. Two young black men are in the lower left and right hand corners. One rests his hand on his hip; both look away from us, as if they’ve heard or seen something in the distance.
If the images aren’t provocative enough, Harris’s text sharpens the critique. Bullet holes and blood spatter share the background with ominous phrases: “U.S. & british [sic] government hegemony + money = bloodbath” and “Slashings, Stabbings, & Assaults Will Result In Your Immediate Arrest.” Just behind Malcolm X is a clipping from a religious tract originally intended to lure readers with the tantalizing question, “Hell, Suppose It’s True After All?” I can hear the question two ways. One is a missionary’s comment on eternal damnation. The other, more cynically, is something like, Hell, why not? Much of the text in Harris’s work occupies this polysemic space.
Violence, for Harris, is a consistent subject. But it’s not just the aggression of the adult world that concerns him. “Police Shooter 45. 666 Shooter” (2005) traces back to childhood. For this work, Harris uses the cardboard backing for a realistic looking cap gun marketed to kids in the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s, the manufacturer was pressured into making the guns look more like toys, producing them in bright neon colors.
The upper left area of the package contains a bullseye with a few bullet holes, a detail that definitely removes it from the orbit of Jasper Johns’s Pop Art targets. Over the bullseye are the words, “POLICE .45 CAP GUN.” The irony isn’t just that a toy firearm is marketed to a child, but that having the power and authority to mete out justice, like a police officer, is posited as an aspiration. By juxtaposing the gun with some of Ernest Withers’s photographs from the Civil Rights Movement, Harris offers a glimpse of what this kind of justice looks like: police dogs attacking an unarmed black man. Tellingly, the two cops in the image are not truly present. One holds the leash of the barking dog in front of the black man, but this officer has no upper body, only a leg and an arm connected to the leash. The other officer, who appears to be black, is in the foreground and is looking down. Even though we can’t see the face of the black man who is under attack, we know he’s present and paying attention.
Harris told me he began working in collage after beginning with drawing and painting in his teens. Some of his earliest inspiration stemmed from Abstract Expressionists such as Franz Kline. Formally, many of his collage works draw on this influence. After the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986 and the televised suicide in 1987 of Budd Dwyer, a Pennsylvania State Senator under investigation for accepting a bribe, he began collaging images together. Around this time he also considered entering the military. Instead, he started clipping photos and phrases from recruitment material and magazines like Soldier of Fortune and Small Arms Review, which began his decades-long critique of the relationship between militarism and capitalism.
Today, the legacy of art critics Clement Greenberg, Hilton Kramer, Harold Rosenberg, and Ken Johnson draw Harris’s ire. Thesentur: Conscientious Objector to Formalism, a recent book of image- and quotation-based works by Harris, confronts what he sees as “stop and frisk” criticism, a term he coined as a response to Ken Johnson’s infamous review of Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, in which Johnson treats black artists as secondary to white artists. Many of the images in Thesentur appear in Dis-Placed.
Rembrandt’s “The Syndics” (1662) recurs throughout Thesentur. The men in the painting are drapers assessing the quality of cloth to be sold to members of their guild. The cloth was acquired by the Dutch West India Company, which was deeply involved in the slave trade. Harris reminds us that this image was co-opted for Dutch Masters cigars; one of the artist’s skills is his astute ability to remind us where an image or idea may have originated, and how it reverberates throughout culture.
Harris superimposes a charged quote over the image of the Dutch Masters used on the cigar package in several of the works. “After Harold Rosenberg (ghosts)” (2015), part of the Conscientious Objector to Formalism series, reproduces the famous image as a negative and places Rosenberg’s line, “Apparently, aesthetics can function as a tool of racism,” above them. This quote comes from “Being Outside,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1977, and addresses the discrimination by critics and museums towards black artists. In Harris’s hands, the quote seems to be stating the obvious fact that aesthetics are not neutral.
“After Ota Benga” (2017), also part of the Conscientious Objector series, is one of two installation pieces in the show. A plastic sheet on the wall is spray painted with the sentence “Ota Benga flung a chair at the head of Florence Guggenheim.” The Dutch Masters hover at the bottom of the sheet. On the ground, just below it, is a chair and a plastic torso. Benga was born in Colonial Congo in 1883 and sold by slave traders for an anthropology exhibition in the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis in 1904. Later, he was put on display at the Bronx Zoo and lived in a room at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It was there, during a donor fundraising night, that Benga threw the chair at Guggenheim. When he was finally granted his freedom he moved to Lynchburg, VA, and worked in a tobacco factory. In 1916, at the age of 32, he committed suicide with a gunshot to the heart.
This work, perhaps more than any other in Dis-placed, shows Harris’s intention to expose the exclusionary aesthetics of modernism. Benga throwing a chair at Guggenheim is a decisively physical and political act. This action, along with his suicide, are about self-determination. In many ways, I see the same determining moves in Harris’s work. His works are not gentle. They are neither pretty nor relaxing. The materials and intentions of art, in his view, should upend the comforts of the privileged and limit the scope of their power over the marginalized.
Theodore A. Harris: Dis-placed by Conflict continues at the Center for Humanities at Temple University (10th Floor, Gladfelter Hall, 1115 Polett Walk, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through August 1.