Exhibition Review: Zoe Leonard; Survey
By Ilana Jael
It’s fitting that the first thing that catches your eye when you enter the first room of Zoe Leonard: Survey, the newest photographic exhibition from the Whitney Museum Of American Art, is a central row of suitcases. For one, this exhibit itself is intercontinental, organized by the Museum Of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, to which it will travel after its NYC debut. As we look towards the walls, we’re then struck by airplane-window photographs of clouds and striking aerial shots, some of them of the very city we’re standing in. All indications are that we are embarking with the renowned artist on a journey--a journey through her esteemed career thus far, as well as a journey through her psyche and through the wide-ranging subject matter illuminated by her works.
Leonard leads us through ominous mirror lined halls, the preserved head of a bearded woman from Paris’s Musée d'Anatomie Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière, and even inside the human body with her pictures of an anatomical model--all part of a collection of “photographs from the 1990s that addresses gender and sexuality within museum displays”. Close by is the flamboyant Fae Richards photo archive, created with filmmaker Cheryl Dunye for her film The Watermelon Woman. Our expertly-guided tumble through time and space continues with “You see I am here after all”, on view here for the first time since its original life as a site-specific installation at the Dia Beacon and composed of thousands of postcards of Niagara Falls and that engage with “that iconic landscape and its role in the American myth”.
Next, selected photographs from the series “Analogue”, Leonard’s innovative indictment of capitalism originally showcased at the MoMA in 2015, can be found adjacent to a room devoted to her famous sculpture “Strange Fruit”, a surreal expression of Leonard’s grief created during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Another nearby sculpture aims to incite spectator action with stacked copies of James Baldwins’ incendiary “The Fire Next Time” lying like ammunition for the revolution she wishes were ahead, while a short walk brings us to Leonard’s own most memorable foray into the written word, the equally inflammatory short 1992 scrawling “I want a president”.
In a final room, a new sculpture composed of editions of the Kodak manual “How To Take Good Pictures” is meaningfully positioned overlooking the Hudson River, a place where visitors are notorious for taking pictures themselves. The installation also calls to mind the very cultural institution in which it is standing, where the best of the best American photographers presumably hope to end up someday showcased. After touching down, transformed and enlightened by our stratospheric experience, one looks back on their voyage through Zoe Leonard; Survey as fondly as one remembers a favorite vacation, eagerly awaiting the next moment they can embark.