PRINT December 2016

Tim Griffin

View of “Zoe Leonard: In the Wake,” 2016, Hauser & Wirth, New York. From left: Total Picture Control (I), 2016; Untitled, 2015–16. Photo: Genevieve Hanson.

IF ROLAND BARTHES had a standard practice when it came to his theoretical writings, it was to engage an earlier period’s cultural production whenever he sought critical perspective on the culture of his own time—utilizing the distance afforded by considering, say, Racine’s ideation of literature in order to gain a fuller sense of the prejudices hidden within (and the historical debts owed by) contemporary formulations of writing. Such a contrapuntal approach would afford a new generation of theorists and scholars a genealogical grasp of their chosen discipline—as well as of its philosophical tenets—and effectively undercut the a priori stability of our privileged vantage by setting it in relation to so many others. As one might expect, such a technique is frequently enlisted by artists underscoring the tenuous stature of institutional contexts today. Yet its role in Zoe Leonard’s latest exhibition, titled “In the Wake,” was provocative for operating both discursively and, perhaps more important, physically, continually entwining the visual and the material—as the artist has long been apt to do in her photography—to arrive at resonant disjunctions between the imaging and embodiment of cultural and personal narratives alike.

A linchpin for this endeavor as manifested at Hauser & Wirth was deceptively simple: The spaces in which Leonard’s photography was on display were punctuated by neat stacks of books, with each column comprising multiple copies of a different historical publication devoted to the craft of making pictures and, by extension, to specific value systems by which the success of any given image might be measured. For instance, near the gallery’s entrance—standing beneath Leonard’s opening image of a snapshot featuring her mother before a map of postwar Europe—was a stack of Thomas M. Miller and Wyatt Brummitt’s 1945 This Is Photography, which promises to guide readers in every aspect of the photographic process, from selecting a lens to setting exposure times to printing the image. In a brightly lit rear gallery, amid images of snapshots whose surface reflections made the pictures all but illegible, stood another column, this one composed of Andreas Feininger’s 1961 Total Picture Control, the cover of which features the author’s iconic black-and-white portrait, titled The Photojournalist, that helped define the look of Life magazine a decade earlier. And, in an upstairs gallery, one encountered a stepped series of stacks comprising different editions of Kodak’s How to Make Good Pictures, with the volume’s changing cover design suggesting varying ideals of subject matter and composition, to say nothing of distinctions in material production over the years. Through all these examples, one was made subtly aware of how one’s vision (or, better, aesthetic) is specific to a given cultural time and place. But this recognition—indeed, the attending sense of being caught in the act of reading and “picturing” the exhibition for oneself—was also bound to one’s positioning in architectural space. Looking at any photograph, one nevertheless was mindful of the presence of a stack of books nearby (if only to avoid knocking it over). And so, if reflections on changing societal conventions were turned back on the viewer, the phenomenon was made palpable in a gallery setting, even to the point of suggesting how subjectivity might be inflected by such larger economic forces—or might, in a sense, come in editions. (After all, though the books were mass-produced, each was meant to be held by a single reader; the sculptures’ minimalist formalism here might have been “completed” by the viewer, but only while shaping the experience of that viewer within a broader field.) The notion that one’s most fundamental sense of self might be imbricated in overarching social forces was driven home even by the innocuous subtitle of Feininger’s volume, given implied meaning here: A Personal Approach to Photography.

Zoe Leonard, Warsaw 1943, 2016, two ink-jet prints, each 11 3/4 × 9 1/4".

This notion of lived experience being so figured has long been at the root of Leonard’s photography, and—particularly when it comes to a corollary move from analog to digital technology—has most often been linked with her interest in what is lost, or made incongruous, during times of societal transition. Hence, Leonard’s famous photographs of arranged objects simultaneously suggest an individual’s portrait and a tableau of cultural systems. (Or, as she once wrote of a situation she encountered and documented in Trinidad, Cuba, in which a television-repair shop had been forced to deliver sets by wheelbarrow, “Philosophies and economic systems, corporate and political players far from here, all put the TV in the wheelbarrow.”) In this exhibition, a small selection of enlarged contact sheets featuring flocks of pigeons flying above rooftops in Brooklyn a decade ago hewed closely to this approach: However lyrical their patterns of flight might be, the birds today are markers of time passed, given how gentrification has made the practice of rooftop pigeon-keeping all but disappear from the city. At the exhibition’s heart was a sequence of snapshots depicting the forced migration of Leonard’s own family members, beginning in occupied Warsaw during World War II, continuing at a displaced-persons camp in Italy and an interregnum in London, and concluding with their safe passage to the United States, where the family would become American citizens. By themselves, Leonard’s photographs are remarkable: She documents the snapshots as if they were taken directly from an antique album—as physical objects, in other words, that have been transported from place to place, tracing the very historical passage taken by her family. (The material aspect is also clear when lighting reflects off their surfaces, so that the viewer makes out the impression of a postmark stamp rather than any clear image.) And whereas Leonard’s earlier still-lifes suggest another’s identity nested in larger culture, here her own seems implicated—from family history, genealogy, and intimacy to nationality—raising the question again of what has been retained, or lost, in the image.

For this reason, Leonard’s own assertion that these photographs speak to a kind of “statelessness”—literally, in the case of her family—is especially resonant. It is only too easy, when looking at these images, to transpose the terms into our own era’s register of precariousness, considering, for instance, the eroded contours of states, customs, communities, and so on in the face of digital technology and speculative economies. Yet the paradox here is that the symbolic charge of Leonard’s pictures, encountered in all their analog materiality—the remarkable sense of symbols obtaining the stuff of substance, and even possessing a kind of half-life, whether the American flag or the Statue of Liberty set behind the artist’s immigrant family—is only amplified by the layered distance of the scenes captured on film. (This dynamic also lends gravity to the themes of Leonard’s exhibition, which prompts renewed consideration of identity, immigration, and citizenship—of any indexical convention of belonging—at a moment when precisely such matters are giving rise to right-wing populism in the United States.) In fact, the most forceful thing about the images is how quickly they make it apparent that larger forces, often considered as abstract as the weather, may be seen to shape the most personal aspects of life. Indeed, these forces are not abstract at all. And the clarity of Leonard’s exhibition is such that her very title suggests a prepositional turn for her work, as “In the Wake” pertains less to what might come “after” some world-historical event than to what happens—or what turns up, what is made newly visible—within the shifts themselves: the images that rise on the waves as they are still churning today.

Tim Griffin is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.

See Zoe Leonard’s Artist’s Project (Summer 2016), in which this body of work made its debut.