The ancient Greek philosopher Hericlitus made the ironically enduring observation that you can never step in the same river twice. But he also lived in a world before photography where, while the river might keep owing, I can go back and examine the moment when my toes hit the water. Photography is the scratch in the grooves of time’s record: it causes it to skip.
This uncanny relationship between the ossified instant of the photograph and the ineluctable flow of time is what Roland Barthes, in his perennially indispensable meditation on photography, Camera Lucida (1980), pointed to when he linked photography to death; by contemplating frozen time, we can see just how quickly it rushes by. Zoe Leonard’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, ‘Survey’, which was initially organized by Bennett Simpson and Rebecca Matalon at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and was overseen by Whitney assistant Curator Elisabeth Sherman for the exhibition’s New York edition, takes this haunting aspect of photography to its foundation, and lays upon it decades of deeply felt work having to do with love, loss and identity. The result is raging and elegiac, a fitting testament to our times.
Leonard’s work was forged in the crucible of the AIDS crisis, whose devastating effects she experienced first-hand, as the disease rampaged through New York’s gay community, and beyond. Her role as an activist, which included serving as a founding member of the radical queer collective Fierce Pussy, led to what is undoubtedly her most recognizable work, the agitprop text-piece I Want a President (1992), which graced New York’s High Line park in the form of a greatly enlarged facsimile during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. The original, type-written manuscript is on now on display at the Whitney. The text, which was composed on the occasion of the long-shot 1992 presidential bid of Leonard’s friend Eileen Myles, a poet and activist, howls at the injustice of being lorded over by stuffed-shirted politicians with no connection to the realities of the marginalized people that they supposedly serve. ‘I want a dyke for president’, it famously begins, ‘I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukaemia.’ Now more than ever, it is painfully obvious that Leonard’s wishes are firmly ensconced outside of the realm of possibility.
But, despite its iconic status, I Want a President is wholly uncharacteristic of the rest of Leonard’s oeuvre, which is allusive, sentimental, and stubbornly anachronistic. Most emblematic in this regard is her sprawling, decade-long project Analogue (1998–2009), part of which was included in the Whitney show. Lushly produced using the almost extinct dye-transfer process and old school silver gelatine prints, the series depicts the mouldering remnants of mom-and-pop retail culture, which has nearly been wiped away by successive waves of corporatization and online retail, and the second-hand markets in developing countries where our cast-off consumer goods wash up. Some of the pictures are redolent of Eugene Atget’s eerie images of Parisian storefronts, and many owe an even greater debt to Walker Evans’s obsession with hand-painted signage, especially his cheekily self-referential License Photo Studio, New York (1934), to which Leonard pays direct homage more than once. However, while Atget’s artistic motivations (if any) remain unknown, and the impetus behind Evans’s work was largely to celebrate the US’s exuberant vernacular culture, Leonard’s project is shot through with melancholy metaphor. As the multivalent title of the series suggests, the shuttered shopfronts and ragtag hand-me-downs can be seen as stand-ins for the forgotten, unwanted, and outmoded lives that litter the path of progress as we tumble, ass over ankles, into the future.
This talent for wicking potent metaphor out of the things that most people breeze past on the street was further evinced throughout the show. For instance, a pair of pictures of bricked up windows, one in black-and-white and one in muddy, muted colour, come to resemble yawning orifices full of putty, robbed of their ability to let the light of the world in, or disgorge the secret workings of their interiors. In contrast, a subtly show-stopping series of works, ‘Tree + Fence’ (1998), depicting trees oozing their way around and through chain link fences and barred steel enclosures become poignant tributes to the e cacy of the slow, steady struggle towards liberation.
These latter pictures feel like the obverse of the most successful work in Leonard’s sporadic sculptural output, which was installed in an adjacent room. A humble, heart-breaking monument to her friend David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, Strange Fruit (For David) (1992–97), consists of the desiccated skins of dozens of peeled fruits that Leonard sewed back together, resulting in a scatter of shrivelled objects that recall Frankenstein’s monster, though mixed with the spirit of Japanese kintsukuroi. Here Leonard’s devotion to her reconstructive project provides the work’s sting, as it ritualizes our futile impulse to attempt to mend the unmendable. Other sculptures in the show are less compelling. A pair of ‘portraits’ fashioned out of vintage suitcases – one a self-portrait, 1961 (2002–ongoing), to which Leonard adds a suitcase every year – seem like a one-liner about personal baggage, which has been lent unearned gravitas by way of the work’s readymade vintage patina. Two other recent sculptures are simply stacks of multiple copies of the same book: first editions of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), for her work Tipping Point (2016), and a range of editions of Kodak’s manual How to Take Good Pictures, for her 2016 work of the same name. The former reads as little more than an emphatically retraced check mark on a college syllabus, while the latter is too clever by half.
Main image: Zoe Leonard, The Fae Richards Photo Archive (detail), 1993–96, 78 gelatin silver prints and four chromogenic photo prints, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist