Opened today- March 2nd and on view until June 10th at The Whitney Museum of American Art is an excellent solo-exhibition of an American artist- Zoe Leonard. Organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, (which will house this exhibition after its New York debut, from November 4th to March 25th, 2019 presents 100 works across the artist’s career from mid-80s to today.
The exhibition’s full title is “Zoe Leonard: Survey.” While most curators avoid naming solo-shows of mid-career artists as “surveys” for the term has a generalist connotation of putting all the works under one roof without considering each works’ artistic and cultural value, and historic significance. With that said, the choice of “survey” in this case is two-fold- for the artist explores her medium’s potential as a means to examine the contemporary image-culture against the social and political backdrop. Meanwhile, the museum’s curatorial intention is to prompt visitors to approach the works from multiple angles including the physical and the conceptual within an institutional context.
In the two works above, Zoe Leonard explores how gender is embedded in our visual culture by uncovering the superficial and arbitrary classification that reinforces the diametric perception of the two being opposites.
“The Fae Richards Photo Archive” (1993-96) is a composite of fabricated images originally created as props for a film called The Watermelon Woman (1996) by Cheryl Dunye. Each photograph was staged for historical accuracy, printed to simulate the era, and treated to give the appearance of age. Utilizing the conventions of archival display to convey truth and reality, the work thus critiques the representation of race and gender presented in publicly circulated media.
Through a seres of BW and color-photographs, Zoe Leonard presents an American landmark that has become an iconic site for tourists all over the world- Niagara Falls. In contrast to its spectacular portrayal in postcards, in her BW photograph, the artist reveals the Niagara Falls as a natural phenomenon away from being a national icon. In turn, she’s chosen a view that shows nature’s violent rupture akin to an atomic explosion… that is until you start to notice the passenger-boat afloat.
Then of course, what is a survey if it is presented from only one side? In “You see I am here after all” (2008), the artist also gives a taste of how Niagara Falls is portrayed in popular media. This work consists of manufactured images meant to appeal to a wider audience highlighting the site as picturesque and transcendence-await. Zoe Leonard’s visual arrangement in repetition testifies to the construction of meaning through image-making as subjective, absent of objective reality.
One of my favorite works in Zoe Leonard: Survey is “How to Make Good Pictures” (2018). This work consists a collection of books first published by Kodak in 1912 under the title- “How to Make Good Pictures” as a guide for amateur photographers. The book is still in print today, and is later renamed as “How to To Take Good Pictures.”
With this work, Zoe Leonard traces the evolution of the publication over its numerous editions. What is interesting about the piece is to notice how the title changed from “How to Make Good Pictures” to “How to Take Good Pictures.” As in the word “make” implies the captured images as manipulations of reality, whereas to “take” leads you to believe it is taking records of objective reality.
Another interesting aspect is in how the book’s cover design went from a muted color resembling a textbook, to using colorful photographs of popularly enchanting subject matters such as happy kids, air balloons and people sailing under a blue sky. This points to the transformation of photography from an artistic medium to an apparatus for popular entertainment.
This idea is ever so prevalent today. Since the advent of digital social media, as we are inundated with photos and images, it has desensitized our ability to recognize reality from fiction, and to perceive the subjective as the objective without questioning.
There are books that can help you understand this, if you are interested. Two books by Roland Barthes Mythologies and Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. One by Susan Sontag called On Photography. And, what the hell, if you want to challenge yourself- for example, to read the images and the visual elements in terms of “icon,” “index” and “symbols” go for Peirce on Signs.
Really hope you are still with me. If you just want to see Zoe Leonard: Survey you have until June 10th to head to The Whitney. If you are on the West Coast, head to MoCA in November and you have until March 2019 to catch it.