Zoe Leonard is a New York-based photographer, sculptor, and installation artist. Her work deals with themes of gender, sexuality, loss, migration, displacement, consumerism, and landscape – both natural and urban. In the late 1980s Leonard’s work was inseparable from her activism on behalf of feminism and the devastation caused by AIDS.
Among her earliest work are her aerial photographs which stemmed from her interest in surveillance and aerial reconnaissance photography. Rivers, roads, homes, railroad tracks, etc. are framed with the black edge of the photo’s negative. The plane’s window and glass reflections can be seen. She also took photos of maps with their edges clearly seen within the frame. Her photos are a mapping not only of a landscape but the way in which a landscape is often presented.
This interest in the presentation of nature was shown years later in 2008 with her installation at Dia:Beacon, “You See I Am Here After All.” Leonard’s idea of Niagara Falls as a contrived version of what we call nature consisted of some 4,000 postcards of the Falls that spanned more than half a century, beginning in the early 1900s. The cards are grouped by viewing points from both the Canadian and American sides. They illustrate the way in which popular visions of the falls were manipulated through hand-coloring, overpainting, and cropping. Even the surrounding natural scenery was landscaped in this supposedly unblemished natural wonder.
Her awareness of gender inequity was shown In 1992 in a site-specific installation at Documenta 9. She presented closeup images of female genitalia and positioned them between old master paintings of female figures in Kassel’s Neue Galerie. This exhibition went back and forth between views of women by men with views of women by a queer women.
In that same year she worked on a site-specific installation that functioned as a contemporary take on the still life and as a tribute to a close friend, who had died of AIDS. “Strange Fruit (for David),” 1992-1997, was placed in a room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This work was made over the course of five years from the rinds of some three hundred pieces of fruit, that she and her friends had eaten and then allowed to dry. She sewed the opened seams with colored thread, wires, buttons, and zippers. It was her way of mourning and, “a sort of a way to sew myself back up.”
She is aware of the restrictive values underpinning conventional roles assigned to women as well as the risks and rewards that can arise from contesting these norms. The tension between truth and artifice can be seen in “The Fae Richards Photo Archive,” 1992-1998, done in collaboration with film maker Cheryl Dunye. The archive consisted of seventy-eight gelatin silver prints, four chromogenic prints, and typescript pages and notes which traced the life of a created persona, the fictional character Fae Richards. This woman was an imagined African American actress born in the early 20th century. Her life was documented through her early glamorous starlet stage, her involvement during the Civil Rights Movement, and finally into her old age. Through the use of archival photographs, Leonard and Dunye appropriated material from the lives of real people to make a convincing narrative of the life of this imaginary person. This Archive was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Her “Analogue,” 1998-2009, consists of 412 photographs organized into 25 chapters. They show globalization that led her to photograph small family-owned shops in New York City to roadside markets in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Mexico, tracing the circulation of recycled merchandise. The photos do not contain people, but they reveal the ways in which people arrange and compose everyday items to be bought and sold. Each image alludes to the destructive nature of the global economy in which cheap imported goods sideline local craft and textile development.
“Prologue: El Rio/The River,” 2018, chronicles the 1200-mile stretch along the Rio Grande River, used as the border between the United States and Mexico. Her work focuses attention on the notion of a border as a self-imposed marker that reinforces economic and cultural divides.
This series was shown at the Carnegie International, 57th Edition.
Leonard is also a writer and critical thinker who has published essays on photography and has written monographs on artists, one of whom is Agnes Martin.
The Geffen Contemporary MOCA has just shown a retrospective of her work, “Zoe Leonard: Survey.” Her work has been shown in three Whitney Biennials and is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Reina Sofia in Madrid.