Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History

By Harmony Hammond | Go to book overview
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Zoe Leonard

Asked what it means to be a lesbian in 1994, Zoe Leonard responded: "Why is it that the work of minority artists is always examined for signs of difference? Why is it always us--the dykes and fags, the women artists, the black poets, the Asian playwrights--who are asked about our sexuality or our race? What does being a white man have to do with Robert Ryman's work or Jeff Koons's? What does being heterosexual have to do with Picasso's? I don't mind being a woman artist. And as a lesbian I'm as out as can be. But it's the double standard that bugs me."1

A first-generation Polish American (her mother was a refugee), Leonard grew up poor in New York's inner city, dropped out of school at age fifteen, borrowed her mom's camera, and after it got stolen, bought her own. After that, she says, she always kept a camera with her. Like many artists Leonard has worked a long list of jobs, but she always came back to photography.

I make work about what's on my mind. What disturbs me, excites me, or confuses me. My fears, my desires. That's photography, I point my camera at something that interests me. Then I show it to you. You literally see my point of view. You see what moves me, scares me, or disgusts me.

Not much of my work is about love--at least so far--or sex. But being a dyke and being a woman have formed me, formed my perspective. They aren't the only elements, but they're the ones that run through everything in my life. Certain things keep happening because of those facts. I get crushes on women, I get harassed a lot. I hang out with lots of other dykes and fags. I'm afraid of being gay-bashed. I'm afraid of being raped. I'm angry because so many of my friends have died of AIDS. They--we--were not allowed, for instance, to put the word "lover" in a New York Times obituary. Those things add up.

I've had to come out. No straight person knows about coming out. I've had to find a desire inside myself and follow it, even though it goes against the grain of all social patterns around me. That process of discovering, examining and trusting my own desire is formative. I was already fucking girls, but figuring out my sex and choosing to come out made me a dyke.

So my sex is part of who I am, how I've been treated, how I treat others. It's developed in tandem with other influences. Being queer has partially formed my world view. And my world view is always in my work, even when my subject isn't sex.2

Interested in the scientific and cultural construction of gender, Leonard has for years photographed exhibits in medical, natural history, and art museums throughout Europe, calling into question "the male-dominated origin of much that we assume is neutra neutral [or natural]." Leonard photographed displays of the head of a bearded woman, a chastity belt, a "beauty calibrator" (a device for measuring perfectly proportioned facial features at the Museum of Beauty in Hollywood), and anatomical models of women with their chests removed and viscera exposed. Despite their supposed medical and scientific purpose, the mannequins were positioned in suggestive poses, endowed with stereotypically feminine characteristics, and often decorated with jewelry or items of clothing. In a Vienna museum, a wax mannequin with flowing blond hair and a double strand of pearls reclines in a glass coffinlike case (opposite page below). She is the only female mannequin in the museum and the only mannequin not presented in an upright position. In another museum the anatomical model of a woman with her stomach cut open is seated and holds her hand up in a classic gendered position of shyness or fear, (opposite). The erotics and politics of display and the display of desire, of death, sexuality, and institutional violence lurks barely beneath the surface guise of clinical study.

The ordinariness of Leonard's casual prints parallels the intended neutrality of the science and art displays. Leonard uses a soft paper stock that gives her prints a grainy look suggesting surveillance, voyeurism, or fleeting dreams, memory, and the subconscious. Often shot surreptitiously and in a hurry, when museum


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Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History


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