Zoe Leonard, Excerpts from ‘Al río / To the River’ @Hauser & Wirth

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 photographic works, displayed unframed against white walls in a series of three gallery rooms on the second floor.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 1 gelatin silver print, 2017/2022, sized roughly 17×24 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 2017/2022, sized roughly 26×37 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 set of 6 gelatin silver prints, 2018/2022, each sized roughly 17×24 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 set of 2 gelatin silver prints, 2020/2022, each sized roughly 22×31 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 set of 4 gelatin silver prints, 2019/2022, each sized roughly 14×20 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 2019/2022, sized roughly 22×31 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 set of 34 gelatin silver prints, 2019/2021, each sized roughly 14×20 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 2019/2022, sized roughly 26×37 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 2018/2022, sized roughly 26×37 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 set of 5 gelatin silver prints, 2016/2022, each sized roughly 17×24 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP

(Installation and detail shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was published in 2022 by Hatje Cantz (here). Softcover, two volumes in a slipcase, 552 pages, with 312 illustrations. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: The southern border of the United States, the one that divides the nation from Mexico and runs nearly 2000 miles along the Rio Grande river through vast and often unforgiving desert landscapes, is destined to become even more of a political flash point than it already is. As the nations nearer the equator increasingly struggle with governmental instability, economic hardship, and environmental destabilization, all three driven to some extent by the escalating ravages of climate change, it is inevitable that more and more people will flee those countries and come north, just as they have been doing for decades, but likely in even larger numbers. For the United States, securing this border and providing a manageable way to handle and resettle all these refugees in some reasonable and humane fashion is already a polarizing political issue, and the complexities that surround life in the border region aren’t just political; they are a tangled mix of interwoven historical, cultural, social, familial, economic, and geological realities that an invisible line through the dusty scrub (or a slatted steel wall) fails to fully engage.

Photographers from both sides of the border have been wrestling with these and other related realities for more than a century, and as the pressure increases in this region, more and more artists are being drawn to the borderlands in search of their own stories, impressions, and reactions. Starting in late 2016, and continuing for the past six years, Zoe Leonard has spent time along the river portion of the border (some 1200 miles of the total distance), following the twists and turns of the water from El Paso and Ciudad Juárez all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and making some 400 photographs, from both sides. This small gallery show brings together a fractional sample from the much larger Al río / To the River body of work, providing a succinct introduction to Leonard’s photographic engagement with the region; a fuller presentation of the work debuted at Mudam in Luxembourg earlier this year (here).

Stylistically, Leonard’s photographs from the border largely follow along with the black-and-white aesthetics she has been using for much of the past decade – distinct black borders, pared down unframed presentation, serial examination of subjects, and more generally, an understated, often muted approach to observation and documentation. Some of these ideas were visible in her 2018 retrospective at the Whitney (reviewed here) and in a 2016 gallery show (reviewed here), particularly in her more recent work. As now applied to the contested, historically complex border region of the United States and Mexico, Leonard’s pictures recall those of Jo Ractliffe, whose images of former war zones in South Africa and Angola tease out hidden histories embedded in the land, with unpretentious attention to textural surfaces and middle greys.

The first images in the show serve to orient us. Two pictures essentially place us right in the middle of the Rio Grande, standing on one of the vehicular bridges that crosses the river; one uses a plaque and a tall vertical pole to inscribe the political line of the border on the landscape, while another simply looks down at the sweep of the river, taking a more timeless unencumbered view of the land. The combination sets off many of the elemental conflicts inherent in Leonard’s project, particularly between the uniting geography of the river and the national interests that have made it a divider. Leonard follows this up with a series of images in Ciudad Juárez, where families drive to the riverside, park, and jump in for a swim. The photographs are intricately layered with time-elapsed life, the sandy riverbeds and hills in the distance punctuated by the casual movement of residents and the passing of a train, amplifying the sense of the borderlands as areas of inherently intermingled priorities and uses.

This mood of coexistence (however uneasy) is then upended by Leonard in a series of works that document the some of methods border patrol units use to find those attempting to cross the desert illegally. At first glance, these pictures look like images of leftover junk, like rubber truck tires, chain link fencing, and screen doors abandoned in the scrubland. But what becomes clear is that these items are actually tools used by border agents to rake the desert dirt (as pulled behind trucks and ATVs) so it is perfectly smooth and uniform, and therefore more obviously shows the footprints of those attempting to cross. Leonard examines these tied together tires and smoothed roadbeds with muted attention, their tactile clarity somehow quietly unexpected and out of place in the context of the rocky harshness of the desert. She then gets up closer to the dragged road, showing us a sequence of parallel lines and tire tracks in the soft dirt, like the lines on ruled paper or a musical score, and later takes in a section of steel wall fronted by another sweep of dragged desert that recalls the circular patterns of a meticulously cared for Japanese rock garden. While these surfaces are clean and seductive, the underlying motives for their creation are more conflicted, leading to pictures that resonate with understated visual dissonance.

The largest work on view is a grid of more than thirty images of helicopters, the tiny airborne machines hovering above the trees like insects. As seen by Leonard, the surveillance of these helicopters is seemingly constant, like flies buzzing overhead, the eyes of the border patrol constantly intruding into the landscape. The work recalls David Deutsch’s grid of nocturnal images taken from helicopters, but here the vantage point looks up rather than looking down, making the invasiveness of the surveillance feel claustrophobic, constantly moving back and forth, like invisible netting thrown over us.

In a side room, Leonard offers another look at the land, this time with an emphasis on agriculture. In a series of high contrast images, Leonard shows us the dark furrows of a plowed field in winter, with snow collected in the troughs; as we watch, a flock of dark birds rises up from the ground, flutters in the sky in a dense mass, and then flies off. While the field itself is reminiscent of the exhausted plowed out lines of Dorothea Lange, the message feels more diffuse, bringing in natural movements and migrations that lie atop the infrastructure of growing food. The slow motion spackled dark spots in the pictures feel like an abrupt fluttering departure, the leaving seemingly triggered by our looking.

As seen in this small sample of works, Leonard’s effort to unravel the complexities of the border feels more arms length than many of her contemporaries who have traveled these same pathways; the images of Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo (reviewed here) and Ken Light (reviewed here), as two examples, feel more intimate, with the focus placed more closely on those making the dangerous crossing. Leonard’s pictures stay further away, taking in the stories the land has to tell and the various methods of control layered on top of that shared space with a more conceptual overlay.

That deliberate distance gives these photographs an almost constant sense of simmering friction, with each image or series offering both its surface and the underlying implications of whatever has been observed or noticed. The result is a set of works that oscillate uneasily between simplicity and complexity, never quite finding equilibrium; and of course, this is the point – there are no easy answers to be found at the border, only layer upon layer of realities that don’t necessary coexist without conflict. The indirect emptiness in Leonard’s pictures left me with a sense of dread, the borderlands hollowed out to the point that the humanity of the situation largely takes place off screen. The dirt is raked, the helicopters whirr overhead, and the dark birds rustle and fly away, leaving behind the echoes of contested memory.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $35000 and $275000, based on size and the number of prints included. Leonard’s photographs have been only intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with not enough public transactions to chart a useful price history. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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