Zoe Leonard’s art has long tackled fraught political issues—immigration, gentrification, capitalism—without coming across as moralizing or heavy-handed. Instead, the artist identifies historical or contemporary problems and dismantles them through investigations that are both materially expansive and conceptually rigorous. This approach stems in part from her involvement, beginning in the late 1980s, with ACT UP, fierce pussy, and other activist collectives fighting to save the lives of people with AIDS who were, infuriatingly, deemed not sufficiently worthy by the US government to live. In her most recent work, Leonard again emphasizes themes of community, trauma, and egregious neglect: Al río/To the River, 2016–22, is a piece comprising nearly five hundred photographs documenting a twelve-hundred-mile stretch of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo—a notorious waterway that delineates the border between Mexico and the United States. The artist’s latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in New York presented a well-considered selection of ten “excerpts” from that project.
As I write this review, the river is once again a political backdrop, this time for an interview on MSNBC with the mayor of El Paso, Oscar Leeser, who is discussing the thousands of migrants who crossed the border from Mexico to the US in August and September, and the deaths of at least nine. The riparian landscape has truly become an unwitting symbol of the ongoing migration crisis. But rarely do we get close and considered looks into the ecosystems, communities, and networks that inhabit the area. Take the families seen swimming in the river in the six photographs comprising Leonard’s From Casa de Adobe, Ciudad Juárez, 2018/2022. These black-and-white images comport with an aesthetic found across much of her work: They are surrounded by the stark, heavy frame of film stock, that all-too-familiar motif signifying the “journalistic.” Yet in the artist’s deft hands, the device not only underscores her presence and point of view at a specific moment in time but also indicates her judicious “questioning of both subject and vantage point,” as she said in a 2012 interview, of “subjectivity and how it informs our experience of the world.”
Showing dams and irrigation canals, bridges and boundary markers, helicopters and border-patrol vehicles, many of Leonard’s images speak directly to the ways in which the US continues to use the blunt instruments of power and violence to enforce border policy in regard to people fleeing existential disasters and imminent dangers. (As of this writing, the Biden administration still has not overturned Title 42, which has prompted the forced expulsion of more than two million migrants along the border since March 2020.) Here, Leonard presented a few pictures of dusty, arid landscapes: “drag roads,” in American border-patrol parlance, over which agents pull spare tires behind their vehicles to eliminate footprints and other marks so they can later return to look for new imprints.
Leonard’s restrained, modestly scaled, and mostly square photographs (the largest of which is about the size of a small crib mattress) may be the most prosaic, and the most powerful, of her entire career. Consider, for instance, the menacing helicopter swerving in and out of view in From the Los Ebanos Crossing, 2019/2021. Arranged in a large grid on a single wall, the thirty-four images prompted various thoughts regarding seriality, surveillance, legacies of Conceptualism, aerial reconnaissance, and the relationship of photography to the project of Western expansion in the US. In the five photographs from Untitled, 2020/2022, which were installed in their own room in the show, a flock of birds slowly take flight from a muddy farm. By the final frame, they are mere pockmarks, black dots, sheer visual noise—and on this contested border, they have the freedom to come and go as they please, as every human should.