A decidedly politicized awareness has always inflected Zoe Leonard’s fugitive, eclectic, outwardly quite urbane vision: Though hard to nail down, she can always be counted on to make a statement. How surprised (maybe shocked) I was, then, to encounter her two most recent photographic series—images of trees and dead animals—a stark contrast to her earlier work like the low-angle runway shots of models, or the “Watermelon Woman” archive compiled with Cheryl Dunye. These new photos seemed to all but embrace the conservative mythology of American life: burly patriots hacking out a destiny, subduing and surviving. Had the reliably engagé Leonard, in her trips to the Alaskan frontier, gone native? During our conversation, she read a paragraph from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea about a fisherman’s laconic bond with a fish. Listening to my tape recorder whir in the silence as she considered a reply, I braced myself for a militia pitch.
A silly expectation, because Leonard has grafted the aesthetic concerns developed north of the Lower 48 onto the incisive blend of public and private explorations typical of her artmaking. The artist—whose celebrity since Documents IX in 1992 has been matched by her devotion to grassroots activism—is all about edge: the verge of gender bewilderment; the blissed-out canon of beauty harshly rebuked; the crude unveiled. Her fascination with subsistence thus strikes me as wholly in character, an extension of her obsessions woven into a back-to-the-land ethos. These pictures—outdoor abbatoirs, streetscape flora that combat the urban fabric—signal an effort to inhabit an economy that most of us only glimpse. Leonard remains one of our bravest artists: a moving target who has learned to shoot back.
Matthew DeBord


I see this tree from my back window. I’ve had the same apartment for eighteen years, and I’ve watched this tree grow up and around the fence. I’m amazed at how, over time, it has absorbed the fence into its body.

In 1994, I started spending time in Alaska. The first time, I stayed six months. I returned in 1995 and lived up there alone for a year and a half in Eagle, a small village on the Yukon River. I got interested in the idea of subsistence—of living more directly from my own labor. I heated with wood, hauled my own water, and gathered and grew some of my food. Gradually, my experiences there seeped into my work.

At first, I had no intention of taking any pictures while in Alaska, but eventually I began dealing with the new imagery that surrounded me. The pictures that resulted were different from anything I had dealt with before, such as the wax anatomical models or

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