Zoe Leonard: Survey

IN THE LATE 1980S, at the outset of her celebrated career, Zoe Leonard had a crisis of conscience. aids was massacring entire communities with alarming speed, and as a vital member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (act up), she found herself distrusting the value of art in an era when activism felt far more urgent. She showed her friend David Wojnarowicz some pictures of clouds she’d taken that she worried were slight, their politics too nuanced, but he reminded her that beauty was in part what they were fighting for. “You want to help create a world where you can sit around and think about clouds,” she would explain later. “That should be our right as human beings.”

Zoe Leonard: Survey, the catalogue accompanying her first solo museum show in America, takes stock of over three decades of photographs and sculptures by an artist whose work stops time, tallies accumulation and loss, and reveals both gore and grace inside the commonplace. The directness of her images can lull a looker into thinking that what’s being seen is a known quantity, a resolute quality that curator Bennett Simpson, who organized the exhibition, brightens with the word apprehension. Whether she’s shooting the eviscerated bodies of hunted wild game, or the plastic innards of female anatomical mannequins, or graffiti scrawled on grungy walls that declares i love pussy, blow me, or gay + proud + dead, one recognizes an eye and mind working to capture what emotional remains can be excavated from such sights.

Zoe Leonard, You see I am here after all (detail), 2008, 3,851 vintage postcards, overall 11' 10 1/2" × 147". Collection of the Artist, Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

In his pulsing, poignant essay, poet-scholar Fred Moten dubs Leonard the “philosopher of the sequence out of sync.” (Elisabeth Lebovici, Douglas Crimp, Elisabeth Sherman, and Lanka Tattersall also contribute impressive texts.) Which is all to say that working in series—hanging together thousands of collected vintage postcards of Niagara Falls, lining up as many suitcases as years she’s been alive—is one way the artist calls out the false comforts of chronology. Beginnings, middles, and ends may be nothing more than perceptual hiccups inside the hum of eternity. For one of her most indelible works, Strange Fruit, 1992–97, she sutured back together the peeled, dried skins of oranges, bananas, lemons, avocados, and grapefruits with tender, awkward stitches—like those on a corpse after an autopsy—so they appear (almost) whole again. An act of recovery may prove a pointless task, but it also expresses a willful, perhaps even fanatical, gratitude for the present.