Mirror Displacements: Mark Godfrey on the Art of Zoe Leonard

Article excerpt

WITH ONE EYE ON WALKER EVANS and the other on Eugene Atget, Zoe Leonard began in 1998 to document a passing era of material and retail culture. For her monumental archive of some four hundred photographs, cannily titled Analogue, 1998-2007, she took frontal photographs of small independent stores, first around her home in Brooklyn and then in other parts of New York and in Chicago. She was particularly attracted to shops with deteriorating signage, quirky window displays, and an often seemingly random array of products. Especially compelling to her were handwritten signs whose wording, frequently misspelled, announced closing sales and rock-bottom bargains. In the resulting images, there are hair salons, clothing stores, television repair shops, and butchers selling goat meat. None of the American shopwindows Leonard selected displayed massive commercial logos, and noticeably absent from her archive are large supermarket chains and dazzling bargain stores--nothing was further from her concerns than producing a spectacle of cheap shopping in the vein of Andreas Gursky's 99 Cent, 1999. If the larger context of commerce, or of global economics more generally, figured into her work, it remained steeped in a gritty vernacular. Leonard became interested in the way in which the products she saw in these shops could unravel stories about the connections between New York and other countries--how immigrant storekeepers import products from the countries of their birth, and how used items are exported to developing countries. She traveled to Kampala, Uganda, to photograph clothes bundled in packages and hanging on racks, never indulging in the National Geographic exoticism that typifies most images of this continent's markets. In cities that are hubs of anti-American sentiment, such as Ramallah and Havana, she took pictures of the trademarks of American brands--Coca-Cola and so on--sometimes handpainted on wooden slats. Analogue exists both as a large installation of almost four hundred C-prints and gelatin-silver black-and-whites and as a forty-part sequenced portfolio of dye-transfer prints; the final image shows two pairs of brown shoes in a Warsaw market, off-center in the frame, crudely displayed on tatty sheets of blue plastic. Two shoes have no laces, and one has been patched up with leather that's too dark; yet further use awaits.

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Exhibited at Documenta 12 last summer, Analogue was one of the few projects that rose above the generally negative reviews. Yet weirdly absent from the approbation was any mention of Leonard's previous appearance in Kassel. During Documenta 9 in 1992, she installed in the city's Neue Galerie nineteen close-up black-and-white photographs of vaginas between old-master paintings of (often nude) women taken from the Galerie's collection. The work still seems audacious, and all the more potent for its succinctness. With these relatively modest prints, simply affixed to the museum's papered walls, Leonard managed at once to underline the chauvinism of bourgeois eighteenth-century painting (which idealized and objectified women while shunning direct portrayal of their sex) and to substitute for these idealized figures images of women made by a woman. At the same time, the prints were assaults on more recent traditions of fine-art nude photography, from Man Ray to Irving Penn. Instead of photographing naked bodies to capture elegant curves or fascinating skin texture, Leonard shot crotches straight on, close-up, and in direct light, letting most of the rest of the subjects' bodies fall out of the frame.

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The two Documenta contributions differ in radical ways: In Analogue, Leonard paid homage to previous photographers, while in the 1992 project, there was a strategic and critical departure from art history; the Analogue prints are finely crafted, whereas the vagina photographs could be said to be "de-skilled. …