New York

Susan Leopold

John Weber Gallery

At first glance Susan Leopold's installation seemed poised between artsy Minimalism and a Times Square peepshow. Eleven monochromatically painted wooden boxes were fastened to the wall, each fitted with one or more wide-angle lenses through which one could view minutely detailed architectural scenes. Unlike such “voyeuristic” works as Duchamp's Etant donnés. . ., 1946–66, or, more recently, Aimee Rankin's installations, Leopold withholds sexual or overtly macabre frissons; her scenes are devoid of obvious action, drama, or characters. Instead they seem like documentary evidence, preserved as though a crime had just been committed on the premises. Both resembling and referring to photographs, these scenes articulate photography's uneasy mediations between reality and artifice, memory and history, preservation and decay.

Leopold's minivistas sustain the impression of documentary while simultaneously subverting it. The peepshow's voyeuristic promise is short-circuited in these works, as they foreground absence rather than presence; one “sees” nothing but empty alleys, stairwells, subway platforms, and walkways. The act of looking is transformed into an act of imagined remembering. For all of Leopold's scrupulous attention to the details of dirt and decay, an aura of reverie subsumes the documentary. The potential narrative of urban decrepitude is suspended, bracketed, as Leopold reconstitutes history as memory. Last Flight, 1988, consists of two contiguous scenes, one of stairs ascending and another of their terminus. Through an open door on the landing one spies a rusted water tank and four smokestacks. This panorama of urban and industrial dissolution neatly thematizes the recurrent motif of photographic documentation, but also hints at a poetic, possibly tragic dimension of photographs as sentimental and mnemonic talismans of the (vanished) real.

In two other pieces—Piano, Ellis Island and Contagious Disease Ward, Ellis Island, both 1988—Leopold evokes the aspirations and trauma of the American immigrant experience/mythology. But whereas the New York urban landscapes maintained the eerie facticity of dreams, in these the illusion is less skillful. Explicitly referring to American history, as well as to former human occupancy (the ramshackle piano, the broken overturned chair), these scenes crumble beneath the weight of a too self-consciously affected poignancy; their “haunted” quality degenerates in bathos. There's a similar problem with the two pieces based on photographs by André Kertész, but in these the specific reference to photography serves to foreground their sly artifice. Looking like bizarrely “sculpturalized” photographs, the formal patterns of black and white evince a stylized melancholy, locating photography as the quintessential medium of memory and desire in representing an absent or lost reality. Drawing directly from Kertész's photographs, these pieces mediate a prior mediation, concretizing the spectral photographic image, adding another dimension of unreality. In her invocation via photography of memory and deferral, reverie and displacement, Leopold questions the construction of our histories and the imagining of our environments: how does one respond to absences so deeply felt they assume the weight of presences?

David Rimanelli