Over more than three decades of her career, Zoe Leonard: Survey it makes its West Coast debut at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, until March 25, 2019, introducing photographs, sculptures, and installations which celebrate her lyrical observations of daily life, as well as for their rigorous, questioning attention to the politics and conditions of image-making and display. Zoe Leonard: Survey brings together approximately one hundred key works from across Leonard's career, dating from the mid-1980s until today.
A group of seven desiccated, emptied-out, and stitched-back-together banana and orange skins arranged on a shelf, a small-scale version of the room-size installation titled Strange Fruit (1992–97). Evoking a long tradition of Scatter art, both the formalist varieties by Carl Andre and Barry Le Va and the narrative versions by Mike Kelley and Cady Noland, Strange Fruit consists of dozens of mended fruit skins strewn about a gallery floor, hand-sewn to make their hollow shapes somewhat whole. Titled after Billie Holiday’s renowned protest song from 1939, whose lyrics begin, 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, Leonard’s work constructs, from a moment of mourning and grief before medications were available to treat AIDS, an abstracted analogue of the physical and social death so chillingly lamented in the song. But the sculpture is also about coping with death, about sewing up and suturing loss through art.
Titles such as Tree + Fence, Out My Back Window (1998) and Tree + Fence, S. 3rd St. (1998/1999) allude to daily routines and familiar views: tree trunks pushing up and through chain-link fences, bark growing around a metal enclosure, backyard happenstance and neglect. In the wake of this visceral landscape, Tree (1997) represents landmark work of the 1990s, on view in Los Angeles for the first time. Composed of a tree carved into pieces and reassembled using metal plates, bolts, and wires, the work is a melancholic and meditative questioning of the intersection of nature and culture, while it also suggests themes of displacement, fragmentation, and reconstruction. In addition, the exhibition includes 1961 (2002-), vintage blue suitcases arranged in a single row. One of several sculptures Leonard made in the early 2000s, the work is unique in its additive nature. Leonard, who was born in 1961, adds a suitcase to this sculpture for each year of her life. Much of Leonard's work reflects on the framing, classifying, and ordering of vision.
The more abstract related work 1961 (2002–ongoing), titled with the year of Leonard’s birth, might be considered a self-portrait in this vein. The row of (now) fifty-seven battered blue valises that stretches out from the wall, like a rank of luggage on a bus or train platform, creates a spatial barrier, literally dividing whatever room it sits in. But it also opens outward in a metaphor of ongoing-times, of the so-far of a life. With the passage of each year, Leonard adds another empty, or maybe full, chapter of her life travelogue.
In the Suns series from 2011, Leonard defiantly turns her camera towards the sky, creating abstract and disorienting images in which the sun serves as both light source and subject. The works point towards Leonard’s longstanding practice of subverting traditional conventions of photography and her continuous questioning of how and what we see.
The exhibition highlights important works of photography from throughout Leonard's thought, including early aerial landscapes, images of subsistence hunting, and her signal work The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993-96).
Made for filmmaker Cheryl Dunye’s film The Watermelon Woman (1996), the eighty-three photographs of The Fae Richards Photo Archive chronicle the fictional life of a queer Black singer and actress in the early twentieth century. Each photograph was staged for historical accuracy, printed to simulate the techniques of the era, and treated to give the appearance of age. In Zoe Leonard: Survey we’re held by what’s out of this world. Out of this world in which we cannot live. Zoe Leonard doesn’t represent one’s incapacity for inhabitation. Her work lives and moves as presences in the displacement we share.
- Exhibition Title:
- Zoe Leonard. Survey
- Opening dates:
- From November 11, 2018 to March 25, 2019
- Organized by:
- Senior Curator Bennett Simpson with Rebecca Matalon
- The Geffen Contemporary, MOCA
- 152 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012