Zoe Leonard: Analogue @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A total of 412 black and white and color photographs, unframed and individually pinned to the wall behind plexi, and hung in grids against white walls in the large single room atrium space on the second floor of the museum. 342 of the works are chromogenic prints and 70 are gelatin silver prints, and the images are divided into 25 discrete chapters. All of the prints are sized 11×11 and were made between 1998 and 2009. The exhibit was organized by Roxana Marcoci and Drew Sawyer. A monograph of this body of work was published in 2007 by the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For seasoned world travelers, the incomprehensible reach of global consumer culture is nearly always a source of surprises. Standing on a corner, riding a bus, or working in a shop thousands of miles from America stands a man in a battered Yankees shirt, a refugee child wearing Mickey Mouse, or a tribeswoman silently declaring her sartorial appreciation for Ghostbusters or Mountain Dew or a 10K road race run in Kansas City a decade ago. In some mystery of cultural osmosis, these misplaced signifiers find their way to the farthest reaches and endpoints of our planet, creating unthinkable contrasts and puzzling juxtapositions as they settle into their otherwise mundane reuse as passed down, thrifted, second hand clothing.

I don’t think Zoe Leonard started her Analogue project with the notion of piecing together the chain of events that led to a child in Warsaw, or Kampala, or Mexico City supporting the Lakers, but the sum total of the systematic work she began in her neighborhood in the Lower East Side of New York some 15 years ago actually provides some insightful documentary evidence for how this unlikely hybridization process is occurring. Her journey began with simply paying attention to her local environment, noticing the increasingly shuttered storefronts of the appliance stores, beauty salons, coffee shops, tailors, and clothing merchants that dotted her nearby streets. As she peered into the shop windows, she saw the signs of inevitable change – the faded displays, the hairstyle grids of outdated looks, the piles of outmoded TVs, the heaps of left over fabrics, and the sidewalk offerings of sagging mattresses, discarded clothes washers, and plastic wrapped furniture. Increasingly, the horizontally striped steel security gates were permanently pulled down, the weary signage once offering suckling pigs, discount fashions, and EZ credit now ghosted into hints of lettering long ago removed.

But Leonard’s pictures aren’t a study of gentrification – they don’t visually explain the clash and turnover of new and old, or the conflicting dynamics of residents in these kinds of evolving neighborhoods. Instead, her photographs are like an anthropological catalog of continuous movement, a meticulous study of shifting needs, downstream impacts, and eventual repercussions. Smartly divided into typological grids (where color and black and white pictures are mixed without particular notice), the images show us the step-by-step patterns of commercial decline (and indirect renewal), where the details of signage, displays, and types of goods on offer are markers of the slow march of transformation.

When the towering bales of overstuffed wrapped clothing arrive as visual signifiers, Leonard’s conceptual story takes a decidedly international turn. Following the larval shipments of cast offs, discards, and left overs to Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, she charts their rebirth, tracking a new set of colorful roadside displays, window setups, and improvised tarp arrangements that will move the goods into the hands of new owners. In the same way she applied a clinical interest to the details of tired New York mom-and-pop retailing, she spends the time to look closely at hand painted murals (of dated cell phones, TVs, luggage, and other necessities), arrays of plastic bins, fabric rolls, and upended brooms, and sidewalk gatherings of junk, from radios and pipe fittings to coffee pots and telephone parts, faithfully documenting notable merchandising innovations and local advertising methods. Here too, her grids help to identify patterns and unique trends, from identical Coca-Cola snack bars to suit coats lined up to maximize edge visibility.

Seen together, particularly in the sequential arrangement used here, Analogue becomes a meditation on the flow of obsolescence, a powerfully systematic document of a process rather than a discrete set of anecdotes. While this effort might seem like an echo of Atget’s work to capture the vanishing remnants of old Paris, this project is less about preserving (with or without nostalgia) than it is about diligently following – it looks forward not back, trying to track where the outward ripples in her own neighborhood might lead. Similarly, her interest in vernacular signage might normally link her to Walker Evans, but again, I think the motives are somewhat different – in Evans, we see a celebration of roots Americana; in Leonard, we see a study of ongoing cultural adaptation.

What I think is smart about Leonard’s approach is that she takes something she was observing personally (the dispiriting changes in her neighborhood) and tries to understand them as if they were a symptom of something larger – the realities she observed weren’t the end point of her thinking, but the very beginning. She then uncovered the trickle down waterfall of grey market consumption that leads all the way to the very poorest places on Earth (and ultimately finds its terminus in the dumps and landfills documented by Pieter Hugo, Vik Muniz, and others), and used it to circle back to the start – her evolving neighborhood was now part of a much more far reaching human cycle of consumption and reuse.

Being a photographer, I’m guessing Leonard couldn’t resist the temptation to allow the analog/digital transition in her art form to weasel its way into this wider narrative; there are just too many closed photo studios in New York and too many makeshift Kodak carts in yellow and red to be found elsewhere to miss the chance to consider the ongoing technology revolution in photography from a more sociological angle. Her antique camera and old school prints feel similarly entrenched in the larger process she is investigating – as one approach fades, it rises again somewhere else, embraced by a new group of people who see its merits with different eyes.

I first saw this body of work six years ago in book form, and its presentation here in the cavernous atrium is altogether different in look and feel. Back in 2009, I saw more resonances with the plight of the economic downturn we were coming out of, and of the more general malaise plaguing the country at the time; now I see a more natural and inevitable process of market fluctuation and opportunistic global resource rebalancing. The book is organized as a series of single frames, so the dense grids presented here dramatically reorient the structure of the project – to its significant benefit I would argue, as the connections between like images help reinforce the organizational system Leonard is trying to draw out. While this huge space is no friend to intimately sized photography like Leonard’s, the silver lining is that one can follow her conceptual progression with a sweep of the eyes, moving from grids of shuttered storefronts in New York to groups of sidewalk junk sales in who know’s where in one continuous flow of thought and image.

In the end, I found myself less moved by the strength of any one particular image and more intrigued by the in-between cultural fluidity and societal reverberations she was trying to capture more broadly – it’s a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts kind of outcome. By infusing a straightforward documentary aesthetic with precise conceptual rigor, Leonard has succeeded at using photography to visualize an inherently abstract idea – that the small changes we see around us can often recoil through unseen and unknown networks, connecting us together in ways we hadn’t imagined. While a local sign may sadly announce that The End is Near!, somewhere else, maybe far away, a new chapter in the story is just getting started.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Zoe Leonard is represented by Anthony Meier Fine Arts in San Francisco (here) and Galerie Gisela Capitain in Cologne (here); she has also recently shown work at Murray Guy in New York (here). Leonard’s prints have been only intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with not really enough public transactions to chart much of a useful price history. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Zoe Leonard, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Wexner Center for the Arts

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