New York

Zoe Leonard

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

It was in her studio—a sixth-floor walk-up on Essex Street in the Lower East Side—rather than in her SoHo gallery that Zoe Leonard mounted her recent exhibition of photographs and objects. Her choice of setting was apt, not because the imagery in her photographs is drawn from the streets outside her window, though it sometimes is, but because her work, like the neighborhood she lives in, comprises inconsequential things—cheap commodities, graffiti, the detritus of everyday life. In Leonard’s photographs easily overlooked objects and sites become oddly expressive, precisely because they form the entire content of the image. They convey no “obvious meaning,” in Roland Barthes’ sense of the phrase, that is, there seems to be no effort to make these things into symbols of anything. As a photographic subject, two toilets in an immaculate public bathroom couldn’t be more mundane. One has a black seat, the other a white one. A mirror on the wall merely duplicates some of what we see. Our expectation, however, is that a photograph relay more—something worth noticing. Leonard relies on this expectation to animate that bathroom; onto its blank passivity the viewer projects a dull but steady desire for revelation.

Leonard exhibited only a small number of photographs but they were complemented by hundreds of objects: mostly fruit peels that, with thread, zippers, or buttons, had been returned to a melancholy semblance of their original shapes. Moldings and holes in the whitewashed room were lined and stuffed with uncanny objects—stitched banana peels still bearing wrinkled Chiquita labels and faded oranges outlandishly repaired—dedicated to dead friends (Richard Booton, David Wojnarowicz ). Mourning becomes Leonard’s project; one imagines her eating the fruit then working distractedly on an absurd enterprise of reconstitution, perhaps in this very room. It is this combination of futility and pathos that keeps these works from slipping into sentimentality. Though artists like Ann Hamilton have explored the terrain of labor-intensive absurdity more thoroughly, Leonard’s fruits embody a nonspecific process of mourning and, inevitably, lead back to her photographs. However promising, the photographs never yield the desired event: the fruit is never reconstituted, and dead friends are not resurrected.

These recent photographs are less programmatic than her previous work, which addressed sexual identity and offered a critique of classificatory systems. By contrast, the recent work is bravely eclectic. Leonard still has an eye for the grotesque—several images of mannequin busts with wigs, someone’s false teeth, a scarred torso—though the images are as respectful of their subject matter as ever. In one photograph, a mannequin head of ambiguous gender, adorned with a rather worn black wig cut in a shag, is mounted on a wooden pedestal as if with sweet solicitude. Another mannequin, a sooty blonde with an extremely long neck gazes alertly out of her diminutive confines (the photograph is a mere six-by-four inches). Four decades ago the mannequins might have been surreal, charged with avant-garde intent, but here they are most purely phenomenological, just a scruffy appearance. Not a lot is made of either, and this is to the good. Most offhand, and most laden with feeling, are Leonard’s pictures of graffiti: phrases like “I love Lucia” shot on what looks like the grayest day in recent memory. These banal, isolated phrases on rocky embankments and blank walls go to the heart of the matter; they are, at once, everything and nothing.

Faye Hirsch