Zoe Leonard at MOCA
Zoe Leonard’s art practice is as direct as it is layered. The title of her Los Angeles retrospective (previously at the Whitney in New York) is “Survey”, which is simple enough – retrospective and survey are near-synonyms, of course. However, this presentation isn’t simply about curators examining the work of a prominent artist; the artist at the focus of this exhibition has built a career out of examining herself, her identity, and her surroundings. She is simultaneously entrenched in empathy and obsessed with objectivity, a surveyor who maps out her steps in advance and as she goes – a balancing act that allows, in fact empowers, her to the reframe micro and macro sociopolitical observations and opinions she forms as a woman in the world.
One of the first works on view is 1961 (2002–), an ongoing installation titled after the artist’s birth year. For this, Leonard annually adds a piece of vintage luggage to a growing line – a symbolic accounting of her life in transitory objects, the concept growing figuratively and literally heavier with each additional year. When we’re young, all we need is a suitcase of essentials and we can peace out to wherever we please; the older we become, the more difficult it is to leave a place or a person, to change a situation or an ideology. Plus, when circling this personal reflection in 2018, with anti-immigration sentiments being popularised worldwide, it begins to feel all the more poignant, potent, and prescient. We can never predict what will transpire after we first say or do certain things, yet with pieces like this Leonard has evidenced aesthetic aptitude and steadfast strength with regard to aggression and oppression for decades.
Like 1961, two of Leonard’s other most direct and layered pieces in the survey are collections of objects. Leaning against a wall, Tipping Point (2016) is a single stack of fifty-three copies of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, assembled fifty-three years after the seminal book on race and religion in America was first released. How to Take Good Pictures (2018) is a freestanding row with copious stacks of varied heights, each dedicated to a specific edition of the Kodak-published guide for amateur photographers which was circulated from 1912 to 1995. When standing in front of or next to these stacks, how can you not ask how or why conditions have, or rather have not, changed since 1912 or 1963? In today’s America, people of colour are still being held down and held back, and Christianity still controls much of the narrative. In today’s world, people are still looking for a guide on how to be a good artist, just instead of reading corporate manuals they’re scrolling through art blogs and Instagram feeds. You can pack a suitcase, but where will you go as an alternative?
Offering such an alternative is Leonard’s perhaps most famous contribution to the world outside of art: on display in its original typed-out form, her 1992 poem “I want a president…”, inspired by the poet Eileen Myles’s bid for the presidency, starts with the line “I want a dyke for president,” and ends with “I want to know why we started / learning somewhere down the line that a president / is always a clown: always a john and never / a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, / always a liar, always a thief and never caught.” While Leonard’s practice broadly reveals the power of examination and reexamination, this text reveals the power of assertion and reassertion. When she wrote it, America was stuck with a Big Boss John in between Bushes. But here we are, twenty-six years later, with the most outrageous liar, thief, and clown imaginable in power. Never have we ever needed a dyke to take over more than we do now. Never have we ever needed artists to repeatedly examine and assert more than we do now. But as Leonard astutely demonstrates, the process must begin inward, with ourselves, before we move outward towards others.
The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
11 November 2018 – 25 March 2019
Keith J. Varadi is an artist, writer, and curator based in LA.