Academic journal article Afterimage

Shared Freedoms

Academic journal article Afterimage

Shared Freedoms

Article excerpt

Such as We: Leone & Macdonald, Ten Years of Collaboration

North Dakota Museum of Art

Grand Forks, North Dakota

March 18-May 19,1999

Henry Art Gallery

Seattle, Washington

June 29-October 3,1999

The overriding theme of the 10-year collaboration between Hillary Leone and Jennifer Macdonald is the intersection of legislative actions and civil liberties such as freedom of speech and the right to privacy. The artists play games with stylistic markers of the art world, disrupting simple forms with larger perspectives and explicitly painful realities. Their work is particularly timely in the late 1990s at a time when deceptive language is being used to dismantle civil rights at the ballot box.

Leone & Macdonald work at the intersection of feminism, late modernism and the breakdown of social, legal and political processes. They are clearly products of late twentieth-century conceptual frameworks, yet in their disciplined production and exhaustive research, they have an obsessive and encyclopedic approach that suggests classical Renaissance artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci. The great difference from the traditions of the Renaissance is, of course, that they are working in collaboration, not as individuals.

Collaboration is arguably the basis for much of the best work of the twentieth century. Collaboration has most frequently occurred between male and female partnerships in which one partner, usually the female, is overlooked or underrated. For example, Bernarda Bryson Shahn made a profound, and as yet unexamined, contribution to the ideas published by Ben Shahn in The Shape of Content (1957). In the case of Leone & Macdonald, there has been a deliberate decision to create a new identity that acknowledges the exchange of ideas--each piece is the result of joint concepts, research and execution, along with a shared willingness to embrace serendipity. Their work becomes a new body, a body that is more than the sum of its parts. Such is the strength of collaborative art. Contrary to the privileging of individualism as the goal of art in canonical modernism, working with another person (or group) actually allows for courageous and outrageous acts that would be difficult for an individual working alone to perform. It is hard to imagine an individual artist being motivated to pursue the exhaustive mental and physical labor in Leone & Macdonald's work. Of course, shared energy can also lead to excess, as may be the case with one of the pieces in "Such as We: Leone & Macdonald, Ten Years of Collaboration."

The exhibition, stunningly installed in the elegant galleries of the old wing of the Henry Art Gallery, began with Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down (1989-1991), the result of an invitation to participate in the first AIDS Day Without Art in 1989. The AIDS epidemic upended the atmosphere of extravagance and excess that characterized the art world during the Reagan years. It caused the deaths of many young, extraordinarily talented artists and led to political action and artwork that portrayed struggle in the face of devastating loss. Artists like Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz, although immersed in their own impending deaths from AIDS-related illnesses, reached out to a wide community with their last words and actions. For Leone & Macdonald, semiotics and minimalist aesthetics became the means to create a complex statement about death, memorials and the inability to preserve a person through memory. Ashes, Ashes takes its title from "Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down," a nursery rhyme created during the time o f the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages--"ashes" being a distortion of the sound of sneezing (sneezing was one of the ways that the disease was spread). The piece consists of a sandbox in which the artists have written in Braille the names of their friends who have died. The Braille is destroyed if someone attempts to read it by touching the names in the sand (or touches the piece in any way). …

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