It’s difficult to place the work of artist Zoe Leonard in any one box. Not only is she a roving polymath in her creative practices, her pieces frequently move between and through various disciplines and practices simultaneously. She’s known as a photographer and sculptor, yet in other modes her work relies on text and long-form writing, other times twisting these disciplines through the practice of photography. Yet these disciplines rarely remain isolated. Her sculptures present as moments frozen in time, built up elements and objects (including, ironically, large stacks of books), often described as cerebral and subdued, yet always carrying a distinct sense of power and duty that challenges the viewer to move beyond a moment of calm repose or frozen, distilled energy.
Such is the premise of Survey at LA’s MOCA, the first large-scale overview of the artist’s work in an American museum. Organized by Bennett Simpson, Senior Curator, and Rebecca Matalon, Assistant Curator, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the exhibition looks across Leonard’s career to highlight her engagement with a range of themes, including gender and sexuality, loss and mourning, migration, displacement, and the urban landscape. More than it focuses on any particular subject, however, Leonard’s work slowly and reflectively calibrates vision and form. Using repetition, subtle changes of perspective, and shifts of scale, Leonard draws viewers into an awareness of the meanings behind otherwise familiar images or objects. A counter-example to the speed and disposability of image culture today, Leonard’s photographs, sculptures, and installations ask the viewer to reengage with how we see.
Leonard’s work draws in particular on the constantly shifting series of visual cues and cultural reference systems she moves through and draws on to construct her works. Her works critiquing the American response to the AIDS epidemic draw their strength from implication; images of withered fruits, husks and fragments of organic material that challenge the viewer not to find a sense of empathy and shared vocabulary in the tragic losses of life during the late 80’s and early 90’s.
In another series of works, Leonard presents a series of postcard images of Niagara Falls, a selection of photos that blend a wonder with the natural world with concepts of modernity (sexuality, nationhood, capitalist power, etc). Nostalgia here is given over to the shared image, challenging the viewer to understand and explore how the sense of cultural images both construct, and reinforce, ideas and notions of the world. Mapping is a concept explored throughout, surveying land not merely as a set of geographic coordinates, but equally as a cultural arrangement, exploring space as both perceived and felt.
The show closes today, March 25th.
— D. Creahan
Zoe Leonard: Survey [MOCA]