Zoe Leonard / MATRIX 143
April 15, 1991 - June 20, 1991
Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).
Zoe Leonard thinks of herself as an investigator. Her photographs reveal a keen attention to ornament and ritual display as well as to the social forces expressed by these phenomena. The image in this exhibition range from a fashion model to a bullfight to an 18th-century wax anatomical figure-images which are as compelling in juxtaposition as they are individually. While isolating images of cultural significance, Leonard's photographs also capture moments of strange beauty. They are contemplative, rather than didactic, reading like a riddle the answer to which is never the same twice.
"There is only desire and the social, and nothing else," wrote Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus.1 This remark, which derives from a central tenet of Surrealism, provides a key to understanding Leonard's work. For Leonard, too, desire courses through everyday life itself-the totality of its patterns and rituals-is nothing more than concrete evidence of intersecting forces of desire. Leonard's photographs capture moments when the power relations which define the outcome of desire are tuned to their highest pitch.
In The Care of the Self, the third volume of his "History of Sexuality," Michel Foucault identified two types of desire which he called by their Latin terms, voluptas and gaudium. He describes voluptas as "a pleasure whose origin is to be placed outside us and in objects whose presence we cannot be sure of: a pleasure, therefore, which is precarious in itself, undermined by the fear of loss, and to which we are drawn by the force of a desire that may or may not find satisfaction." Gaudium, on the other hand, is a state of self-awareness that is not caused "by anything that is independent of ourselves....It arises out of ourselves and within ourselves."2 While Foucault recognized that the shifting balance between these two modes defined a crucial moment in the early development of modern Western society, we learn that the interplay between voluptas and gaudium continues to shape society today.
Much feminist photography of the 1980s (e.g., Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman) might be said to provide a critical reading of voluptas as embodied in an oppressive and objectifying heterosexual male gaze. Similarly, Leonard's photograph of a female anatomical model, which was created presumably by and for male doctors, focuses on a disturbing relation of desire, anxiety, objectification, and control. This model, shown resting in a glass museum case, is flayed from belly to throat, exposing its internal organs. Though undoubtedly grisly, the visceral aspect of the image is less unnerving than the fact that around the model's neck the fabricators have placed a string of pearls.
Other photographs in the present grouping, however, seem to question an exclusively gender-based hierarchy of power. They do so, in part, by introducing-in Foucault's admittedly gender-biased words-the possibility of "the individual who has finally succeeded in gaining access to himself," and who is "for himself, an object of pleasure."3 In contrast to the grotesquely seductive wax woman, it is less clear, for example, that the flamboyant stride of the Geoffrey Beene runway model exists solely for the pleasure of an all-powerful male spectator. By juxtaposing this image with one of a toreador at the climax of a bullfight, Leonard seems to suggest that the model, too, may be performing out of a sense of self-possessed showmanship. Conversely, the comparison of these two ritual displays might suggest that the bullfighter himself-that quintessential image of male aggression and dominance-is as much a victim of the objectifying gaze as is the fashion model. Are these people, Leonard seems to ask, controlling or being controlled by their situation?
In discussing issues of desire, self-possession, and power, it is worth noting that Leonard's lesbian identity may influence her specific relation to the female subject. For example, the view she gives us directly up the model's skirt certainly suggest Foucault's notion of an externalized desire, or voluptas. Nevertheless, the artist contends that the lesbian gaze is fundamentally different from the objectifying gaze of the heterosexual male because her desire is combined with a sense of self-identification (i.e., gaudium) and respect.
The opportunity for individual choice in gender-related adornment and behavior is emphasized in Leonard's installation by the inclusion of an image of a cross-dressed man. Again, the artist's juxtapositions are intriguing: how uncannily similar is Iolo Carew's playful, feminine pose to the triumphant stance of the bullfighter. In contrast to the symbolic masculinity of the bull, the toreador, dressed in his tight, ornate costume, indeed also appears to be something of a feminine figure.
Through images such as these, Leonard draws our attention to how the competing forces of desire are woven into the fabric of society. Her photographs provide compelling evidence that these manifestations of desire remain a complex phenomenon irreducible to a simple dualism of dominance and oppression.
Zoe Leonard was born in 1961 in New York City where she continues to live and work.
1 Gilles Deleuze and F?lix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 29.
2 Michel Foucault, The Care of the Self. The History of Sexuality, vol. 3, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: intage Books, 1988), 66.
MATRIX is supported in part by grants from the Paul L. and Phyllis Wattis Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, The LEF Foundation, and the California Arts Council.