Zoe Leonard (born 1961 in Liberty, NY) is having her first large-scale museum overview in the States. Ever. Her installations, photographs, sculptures, from the 80s to 2018, it’s all there. Her works, although always accessible for interpretation, range from abstract thought-provoking to more straightforward this is what’s happening. You have to look, carefully look, take a moment to let it sink in, and then you see it. The beauty. The metaphors. The criticism.
The first room starts off with beautiful photographs capturing the waves of the ocean, some shots from an airplane and a city view taken from different angles, presented in the minimal frameless aesthetic I adore. Stretched out into the middle of this gallery, one can find 1961, an assemblage of old blue suitcases. The information tag explains that each suitcase stands one for each year the artist’s life. Even the least imaginative person can make out of it this piece has more than one layer. The symbolical baggage one gathers in a year, the decay of life, the continuity of life etc. I believe this kick off is a wise curatorial decision to make the first room a kind of warm-up for the more intellectual and creative challenging throughout the show.
Still in the same room and in the same frameless style, one can see a shot of the Niagara Falls and next to it, Survey, a table full of retro postcards of the same waterfall. Like, a thousand of them, stacked in different heights. She collected them from 2009 to 2012 and they stem from the early 20th century up until the 70s. They show how the landmark has been depicted over time. This is one of her themes. Capturing the same thing (being an object, a street, natural manifestations, name anything), in repetition. Most of the time from different angles. It forces you to reexamine the familiar, to step away from feeling familiar, because that’s when you’re not paying attention. Perhaps in this age of visual saturation, it’s kind of a caution light to make people look, engage, think, notice, and observe.
She says about it: “Part of why I like photography is that it is a form of observation. Just walking down the street I am amazed by how much of everything already exists. There is so much beauty; there is so much cruelty.”
One other exciting piece is You see I am here after all, it is also composed of vintage Niagara Falls postcards. It’s divided into sections, each representing a particular vantage point. By putting it together, it reveals the developments and changes over time in terms color photography and printing. When walking through the gallery, I cannot help but think that it’s pretty funny that some people (curatorial assistants or interns) got the task to put 3,883 postcards on the wall in a neat manner.
The other galleries show different kinds of photographs and installations. In some photographs, Leonard, again, captures the same object from different perspectives. Others show different objects throughout the world. I’m not sure if it’s retro vibe it has, but for some reason, the seemingly uninteresting and unremarkable things, beautiful and striking.
Around election time, when 25.7% of all eligible voters in the USA made the terrible mistake to vote for you-know-who, an almost 25 years old poem from Leonard popped up again. This writing starts with: “I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated
with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.” During the presidential election of 1992 between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, Leonard expressed the desire to see a more diverse range of elected officials, with struggles and experiences that still today most representatives do not possess and have never had to contend with. This work asks us to read the past in dialogue with the conditions of the present. Although the poem was exploded on social media recently, it did not get a lot of attention in the exhibition. It was just one of the many photographs on the wall, presented in the same minimalist style.
Two of her recent installations look very much alike. One horizontal stack of the same books and one vertical stack of the same books. Can art be this simple? Tipping Point (2016) is a stack of James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time. She draws attention to this publication, which included essays about the central role of race and religion in American history, in the year of the 58th election. The same concept is used for How to Take Good Pictures (2018) and this one correlates to her other theme: how to observe more carefully?
Most impressive to me is the installation Strange Fruit (1992-1997). For this piece, she has stitched together (repaired) the dried skins of oranges, bananas, grapefruit, and lemons, using colorful thread, buttons, and zippers. It’s a vanitas, I thought, traditionally they are paintings containing symbols of death, change, or something temporary such as a soap-bubble, as a reminder of the inevitable end of life. Strange Fruit began as a means of consolation for the artist after the death of a dear friend, but now presents a wide range of possible readings, including a meditation on loss and mortality. Created in the AIDS crisis, before any effective treatment for HIV was developed and highly stigmatized. Only after year and years of terror, the U.S. government began to support research, treatment, and education about transmission. The title is a reference to Billie Holidays’ famous protest song from the late 30’s, who sings “Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Her lyrics describe the lynching of African Americans. I think Leonard sees a connection between the two because of the deep pain caused by concepts of difference, people who are dying continue to be ostracized in North American culture (Juniper Quin
Zoe Leonard Survey brings you back and forth between politically didactive, beauty, and an enforcement to reexamine the ordinary. It’s on view until June 10th in the Whitney Museum, New York, and I vigorously recommend it. For more information click here.