Born in the Bronx, Harris was mostly raised by his chemistry professor mother Rudean after she divorced Harris's father, between New York City and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. His maternal grandmother Joella, who he has featured in his art, was a missionary and his grandfather was a treasurer for Greater Bethel AME Church (Harlem, New York). He graduated with a BA from Wesleyan University and received his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.
In January 1993, "Face: Lyle Ashton Harris" was exhibited at the New Museum. The installation combined photography, video and an audio track offering a critique of masculinity and explore constructions of sexuality, race, and gender. In the fall of 1994, Harris exhibited The Good Life in New York where Barkley L. Hendricks also appeared, where Elizabeth Hess of The Village Voice said "the most brilliant pairing in the installation is achieved when Lyle Ashton Harris' seductive self-portraits meet Barkley L. Hendricks' tight paintings of black men. Harris dresses up in feminine costumes, challenging every construct of black macho, while Hendricks' dated, once fashionable portraits - a sports figure, a man in a fancy, full-length coat - support the pillars of masculinity...". The show was composed of large format Polaroids depicting staged and impromptu photographs of friends and family members. One of the most notable works from the show is a triptych series in collaboration with his brother, Thomas Allen Harris, entitled "Brotherhood, Crossroads, Etcetera". The work weaves a complex visual allegory that invokes ancient African cosmologies, Judeo-Christian myths, and taboo public and private desires.
Collage has remained an integral part of Harris's studio practice since the mid-1990s. In 1996, "The Watering Hole", a photomontage series, reveals his performative use of photography and its mechanisms, putting image into a field of representation where they reveal hidden or repressed occurrences.
In 2003, he created works he titled "Memoirs of Hadrian" that took the form of a letter from Emperor Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius after the novel Memoirs of Hadrian. In 2004, "Blow Up", Harris's first public wall collage was shown at the Rhona Hoffman gallery in Chicago. This led to a series of three other wall collages composed of materials, photographs and ephemera Harris collected including, Blow UP IV (Sevilla) which was made for the Bienal de Arte Contemporeano de Sevilla in Seville, Spain in 2006.
In 2010 Gregory R. Miller & Co. published Excessive Exposure. The publication is the most definitive documentation of Harris' "Chocolate-Colored" portraits made with a large-format Polaroid camera over the past ten years. In 2011, The Studio Museum in Harlem exhibited some of these portraits, highlighting specific individual subjects.
In 2014, he was also featured on the Independent Lens documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People produced by his brother Thomas Allen Harris. In 2000 and 2001, he was a Fellow at American Academy in Rome. In February 2015, he received the David C. Driskell Prize from the High Museum of Art and, later in May, he also spoke at the Contemporary African Art Fair at Pioneer Works Center For Art and Innovation.
He has also been exhibited in places such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Venice Biennale, Adamson Gallery, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University Gallery Cornell University, Neil L. and Angelica Rudenstine Gallery, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, University of California at Santa Barbara, Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale and Center for the Arts, University at Buffalo, Andy Warhol Museum and Howard University Department of Art. and magazines such as New York, Vibe and The New York Times (the latter at which he was a photojournalist). Mickalene Thomas cited Harris as an influence of hers while Harris himself cited influences such as Caravaggio, Francis Bacon, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Ashton Harris is represented by the CRG Gallery in New York City. He currently lives in New York where is the assistant professor of art at New York University and formerly split his time between the New York and Accra, Ghana campuses.