A Review of Zoe Leonard's solo exhibition 'In the Wake' at Hauser & Wirth, New York
Then. And now.
As a phrase, "In the Wake" means in the aftermath. Zoe Leonard’s exhibition is not just one thing, not one idea, not one emotion. It consists of single and sets of silver gelatin prints and sculptural installations. (Only the vibrant dye-transfer prints seen in "Analogue," which was last hung in 2015 at The Museum of Modern Art, are "absent" from this presentation.) While Leonard’s work is often called elegiac and nostalgic, "reflective" and “heartfelt” are more appropriate. Her biographical works address both the past and present thoughtfully, but without cloying sentimentality.
The exhibition -- Leonard's first commercial exhibition in New York since 2012 -- is presented on three floors at Hauser & Wirth. The first floor is grounded in biography with marginally manipulated reprints of snapshots taken of Leonard's mother and grandmother, who were in the Polish Resistance Movement. They joined the post WWII Diaspora as refugees, traveling first to Italy, then onto London before arriving in New York. Their pictures highlight their stateless transits.
Intermingled among the snapshots are ones that are semi-obliterated by flares and reflections, reminiscent of Leonard's more recent photographs of the sun.
One snapshot captures a pose of Leonard’s grandmother, who worked on the RMS Scythia. The picture reveals a small, but critical, detail: a lifebuoy on the Scythia. This vessel began life as a luxury liner before it was requisitioned during the war to relocate children, ferry troops to North Africa, and transport war brides and refugees from Europe to North America. Leonard’s grandmother served the displaced, while stateless herself.
The third floor has photographs taken from Leonard's apartment window, capturing the seemingly chaotic clouds of pigeons. These photographs harken back to earlier works: the untitled aerial works from the 80s and 90s, nests and trees from the 90s. Nature is alive in both Leonard’s urban aerialscapes and landscapes. Her images of seabird nests from the 1990s underscore vulnerability: abandonment. The birds in this new work are in active flight: displacement. These images are not only visual metaphors for her maternal relatives, but are also a subtle, yet effective, commentary on refugee migrations globally, which are often difficult, haphazard journeys.
Leonard manages the architecture of exhibition space, framing the viewer's position and perspective. The sculptural installations on all three floors (and which predominate the gallery's second floor) are a photographer's wry take on picture-taking and -making manuals. These installations are stacks of post-war photography books, bearing titles like "Dealing with Difficult Situations,""Total Picture Control," and "How to make Good Pictures." Like Leonard's arrangements of dolls, luggage, postcards, and sewn and zippered fruit peels, these neat stacks of books are all biographical placeholders for Leonard, her family, and friends. They also connect and contrast the rise of everyday, low-cost photography with the advent of post-War, Cold War surveillance.
It would be an injustice to critique the works as "easy to make," "easy to consume." Many of the images are things we all forget or take for granted. It feels like rummaging through a shoebox filled with yellowing family snapshots. From time to time, we look at these pictures, recognizing a face from the past or from a family story. Sometimes we embellish or invent histories and stories made from partial memories, which are passed along in an oral history accompanied by pictures that are crumpled, folded, and frayed.
Leonard's total presentation is packed with intent and meaning -- past and present -- which distinguishes it from the utter banality that permeates photography in the digital age. Black and white photography is difficult. There are actually few gimmicks at the photographer's disposal. Realistic photography is even harder, when the artist cannot retreat behind technical skills (that is, Photoshop and other software.) Yes, "In the Wake" is an apt title for this exhibition, but it could also have been titled, "Dealing with Difficult Situations." The show recalls "then," her grandmother and mother's flight, "and now", the exceptionally complex times we live in.
Open from 13th September - 22nd October at Hauser & Wirth New York, 32 East 69th Street, New York NY 10021
Written by Clayton Press, a contributor to Arteviste.com based in the United States.