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Zoe Leonard: Survey
“The Fae Richards Photo Archive”, 1993-96, (detail)Zoe Leonard. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase, with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and the Photography Committee

Why Zoe Leonard’s work will make you stop and take notice

A new survey spanning 30 years of the artist’s career examines the power of her perspective-shifting work

In 1992, when Zoe Leonard published “I Want A President”, nobody imagined that it would still be relevant 25 years later. Yet in 2016, when performed by Mykki Blanco in the midst of one of the most volatile and emotionally charged elections that America has ever had, it still rang strikingly true. This is the potency of Leonard’s work. Through photography, sculpture, and installation, her work speaks volumes about our world. Her changes of perspective and scale breed poetic observations of everyday life and force us to reevaluate the familiar from new viewpoints. Bringing together 100 of the artist’s key works in an ode to her cross-temporal legacy is New York’s The Whitney Museum of Modern Art, with their current show Zoe Leonard: Survey running until 10 June, before travelling to The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA). The wide-ranging survey celebrates Leonard’s achievements from the 1980s until today.

Works on display include “Strange Fruit: a sculptural installation composed of banana, orange and grapefruit peels, hand stitched back together with zips, buttons, thread, and needles. Created in the 1990s as an emotive response to loss during the Aids crisis, when no effective treatment was available for HIV, it evokes feelings of wanting to fix what cannot be repaired – stitching something together that which can never be unaltered again. It is a seminal work of the 1990s that marks Leonard as an activist for queer politics, and the first time in almost 20 years that the installation is on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, its permanent home.

The exhibition will also show Leonard’s “Fae Richards Photo Archive”, which is the fictional story of a black lesbian actress and blues singer, Fae Richards. Made in collaboration with filmmaker Cheryl Dunne for her film The Watermelon Woman, the archive follows Richards’ life from her teen years, through her career as a Hollywood starlet during the turbulent civil rights era, to her late years as a forgotten relic of the film industry. Each picture, staged with period-specific clothing, reflects an eerie realism as if the actress was once an actual person. The photographs will be shown alongside some of Leonard’s other work from the 1990s, which addresses themes of gender and sexuality within museum displays.

As well as work that dates back to the 1980s and 90s, the show will exhibit some of Leonard’s recent work across photography and sculpture, focusing on the language of image culture and how it relates to identity and migration. A new sculpture, “How to Make Good Pictures”, is composed of over 1,000 copies of a Kodak manual in print from 1912 to 1995, arranged chronologically. Much like the rest of Leonard’s work, the sculpture makes us stop for a moment to take note of what we are looking at. The book’s covers change from year to year showing technological advancements and a new set of happy-looking white people with cameras, but the criteria for a good photograph within the manual remain the same. So really, what changes?

By forcing us to see through her vantage point – first through her unusual use of angles, later through more nuanced approaches – we are able to consider the perspectives we see through in the every day and how they affect our greater perception of the world. As assistant curator of the Whitney says in the show’s press release, “Leonard’s photographs, sculptures, and installations ask the viewer to re-engage with how we see. Her work is both beautiful and powerful, deeply connected to the issues of our time and a counterexample to the speed and disposable nature of image culture today.”

Zoe Leonard: Survey will be on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art from March 2 – June 10, then at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art from November 4 – March 25 2019. Find out more here