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Show review: Zoe Leonard’s "Survey" at Whitney Museum

Jul. 12, 2018
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“Leonard’s message reminds us that America was never great. None of these issues are new, but merely more visible to those who had previously chosen to not see them.”

Queer artist and writer Zoe Leonard consistently produces compelling work, profound both in its content and aesthetic appeal. From her radical poetry and political instillations, to her photographs of shifting Lower East side Landscapes, Leonard’s art examines how notions of time, identity, and personal experiences inform our relationship with the world around us, and those whom we share it with. Although Leonard produced her most notable works in the ‘80s and ‘90s, her art has a timeless quality, and continues to hold cultural relevance today.  

Artists in specific creative circles such as Leonard, Eileen Myles, and Kris Kraus have experienced a resurgence of their work as they’ve become increasingly popular among modern young, queer audiences. 

I, myself, a Brooklyn-born lesbian studying at NYU Gallatin, was introduced to Myles a couple years back when I picked up a copy of Chelsea Girls from the staff recs section of my favorite bookstore, McNally Jackson. The Post–it-sized book review described Myles’ memoir as “a gayer Just Kids,” which turned out to be a brilliant marketing tactic, because I was immediately sold and read it in about a week.

Myles was brought to my attention again when I recently discovered Zoe Leonard’s poem “I Want a President.” Initially published in 1992 in an independent LGBTQ zine, “I Want a President” was Leonard’s response to Eileen Myles’ decision to run for president as an openly gay, independent candidate. Leonard expresses her frustration with the corrupt nature of U.S. politics upheld by our undemocratic two-party system, and its homogenous selection of typically straight, white, male candidates whose desire for money and power always transcends any kind of supposed ideological diversity. Today, the poem is anything but outdated, as the prose feels painfully resonant in our current social and political climate. 

Like many of my young queer counterparts, I came across Leonard’s poem rather unromantically on Instagram around the time of the 2016 election. “I Want a President” went viral after musician Mykki Blanco performed and read it for Dazed. A large-scale print of the poem was also installed on the High Line about a month before Trump’s election. 

When I read Leonard’s poem for the first time, I felt frozen inside her words. I reread it constantly, and listened to it on several audio recordings. I was wrapped up in that indescribable feeling that occurs when someone expresses everything you feel and want to say but don’t know how to articulate. She captured my frustration, anger, and despair, and told me it was okay to feel it all. 

The poem’s political context also feels significant. Written during a period marked by widespread suffering from high incidents of police brutality, incarceration, and an international AIDS crisis, Leonard’s message reminds us that America was never great. None of these issues are new, but merely more visible to those who had previously chosen to not see them. 

Leonard’s artistic and political relevance is especially evident in her recent exhibition at the Whitney, titled Survey. Like her poem, this exhibit was just the kind of art therapy I didn’t know I needed. 

The exhibit, which closed on June 10th, featured a wide selection of Leonard’s work ranging from her early gelatin prints to her more recent installations. Bennett Simpson and Rebecca Matalon beautifully curated each room so that the works had space to interact with each other, yet still stand on their own individually. The careful placement of each piece underscored the elegant simplicity of Leonard’s work as a whole. 

In a 2016 interview with Molly Prentiss for Interview Magazine, Leonard reflects on her fascination with aesthetic plainness, saying “I like getting stuff out of the way so you can see something clearly, see it sharply, have it be new again.” Walking through her show at the Whitney, the sparseness of Leonard’s work both soothed and challenged me. She presents us with familiar objects but asks that we question how we’ve been told to see them. 

The first room displays objects and moments that draw on notions of travel and distance. Beautiful black and white photos of clouds, water, and urban landscapes surround a linear arrangement of vintage suitcases. In Leonard’s “Stacks,” neat piles of Niagara Falls postcards are juxtaposed with a large photo prints of the Falls themselves. Leonard removes these objects from their assigned meaning and representation by placing them in different contexts. She creates visual parallels between buildings, postcards, suitcases, and even waves through repetition and shifts in scale, perhaps illustrating how the meaning of these elements shifts depending on our perspective and connection to them. The unnatural and almost unsettling order and repetition of the objects also makes their imperfections more visible. The wear and weathering from their use—the chipping paint, the rips and tears—affirm the life of the object, and become their distinguishing features. We can’t help but wonder about the homes they’ve lived in, the moments they witnessed, and the bodies they’ve touched.  

Leonard’s photos of Lower East Side storefronts were especially compelling. Arranged in a line on a wall, the dye-transfer prints illustrate the fading identity of a neighborhood lost to modern gentrification. So simple in content and composition, the prints illustrate the process by which a neighborhood looes its color and character. Both nostalgic and eerie, this piece felt deeply resonant. 

Her installation Strange Fruit (1992-1997), featuring fruit peels that have been sewn and altered, was beautiful and jarring. Emblematic of her AIDS activism in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Leonard created the piece after the death of a dear friend. Visually stunning in color and arrangement, this work draws on the existential notions of life and death, and how we grapple with mending and marking a painful loss. 

When asked about her work, Leonard stated, “I’m interested in this increasingly rare space of contemplation and taking the time and energy to be thoughtful. We’re all busy. It’s a very fast-paced world. And art—and by that, I mean culture in a wider sense—is one of the few spaces where we’re allowed to look and think without an immediate response or reaction.” 

This is exactly what Zoe Leonard’s art does for me. This show gave me space and time to think and appreciate small pleasures. Her work doesn’t just come and go, it lingers—and holds a beautiful place in everyday moments. Art for me isn’t just about the work itself, but the experience it creates and the ideas it stimulates. Art is an invitation. It’s the inclination in all of us to hear and listen to other people’s experiences, and see the world through their eyes. And it is vitally important.  

This set was published under Adolescent's collaboration with Speciwomen. You can check them out here.