The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), presents Zoe Leonard: Survey, a major mid-career retrospective of the work of Zoe Leonard (b. 1961, Liberty, New York), one of the foremost artists of her generation. The exhibition is the first to assess the extraordinary range of the artist's achievements over more than three decades of her career to date. Zoe Leonard: Survey is organized by MOCA Senior Curator Bennett Simpson and Assistant Curator Rebecca Matalon, and it makes its West Coast debut at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA from November 11, 2018–March 25, 2019, following its spring presentation at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Leonard has made photographs, sculptures, and installations that are celebrated for their lyrical observations of daily life, as well as for their rigorous, questioning attention to the politics and conditions of image-making and display. Her work is wide-ranging in both form and subject matter, addressing themes including gender and sexuality, loss and mourning, migration, displacement, the history of photography, and the urban landscape. Using repetition, subtle changes of perspective, and shifts of scale, Leonard reframes images and objects in ways that challenge the viewer to follow her path of inquiry and reexamine the familiar from every possible angle.
"Leonard is one of the most sensitive and perceptive observers. But her work is far from objective or documentary—it is full of her piercing and profound vision as it asks us to bear witness to the details of daily life that often remain overlooked and unseen," says Simpson.
Zoe Leonard: Survey brings together approximately one hundred key works from across Leonard's career, dating from the mid-1980s until today. Among the installations to be presented is Tree (1997), a landmark work of the 1990s, on view in Los Angeles for the first time. Composed of a tree carved into pieces and reassembled using metal plates, bolts, and wires, the work is a melancholic and meditative questioning of the intersection of nature and culture, while it also suggests themes of displacement, fragmentation, and reconstruction. In addition, the exhibition includes 1961 (2002-), vintage blue suitcases arranged in a single row. One of several sculptures Leonard made in the early 2000s, the work is unique in its additive nature. Leonard, who was born in 1961, adds a suitcase to this sculpture for each year of her life.
Much of Leonard's work reflects on the framing, classifying, and ordering of vision. As she herself once commented, "Rather than any one subject or genre (landscape, portrait, still life, etc.), I was, and remain, interested in engaging a simultaneous questioning of both subject and vantage point, the relation between viewer and world—in short, subjectivity and how it informs our experience of the world."
To this end, Leonard’s work remains equally attuned to formal and conceptual questions of photography and image-making. Through texture, scale, seriality, and sequencing, she draws attention to the photograph as both an image and an object, offering up an expansive and nuanced understanding of photography wherein framing and subject are intricately entwined. In the Suns series from 2011, Leonard defiantly turns her camera towards the sky, creating abstract and disorienting images in which the sun serves as both light source and subject. The works point towards Leonard’s longstanding practice of subverting traditional conventions of photography and her continuous questioning of how and what we see.
The exhibition will highlight important works of photography from throughout Leonard's career, including early aerial landscapes, images of graffiti and subsistence hunting, and her signal work The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993–96). Made for filmmaker Cheryl Dunye’s film The Watermelon Woman (1996), the eighty-three photographs of The Fae Richards Photo Archive chronicle the fictional life of a queer Black singer and actress in the early twentieth century. Each photograph was staged for historical accuracy, printed to simulate the techniques of the era, and treated to give the appearance of age. The work will be shown alongside photographs from the 1990s that address gender and sexuality within museum displays. The exhibition will also include Leonard's most recent body of photography and sculpture focusing on vernacular image culture and its relationship to identity and migration. Included in this group will be a new sculpture, How to Take Good Pictures, composed of more than one thousand copies of a Kodak manual in print between 1912 and 1995.