by Andreas Petrossiants
AMERICAS SOCIETY | SEPTEMBER 27, 2017 – FEBRUARY 3, 2018
I don’t want to be an artist
I don’t like brushing my teeth
I don’t like showering
I don’t know what to do with an enormous empty space
—José Leonilson, unpublished notebook, 1992
In 1992, the Brazilian artist José Leonilson was asked by Lisette Lagnado whether the reality of the world is “totally” autobiographical. Weak from his fight with AIDS, he answered, “It is.” Given current debates about truth and “alternative facts,” particularly in relation to documentation and the writing of history, such a “total” autobiographical approach surely merits a closer interrogation, which is exactly what curators Cecilia Brunson, Gabriela Rangel, and Susanna V. Temkin do in their exhibition at the Americas Society, José Leonilson: Empty Man. In addition to Leonilson’s long-overdue re-recognition, the exhibition is especially appropriate given the many comparisons to be drawn between the present and the darker moments of the 1980s. Presently, mass social media is often utilized to stoke social discord and repression—echoing the ruthless culture wars waged by the ‘80s Reagan-Thatcherite axis. Performances of identity become especially precarious, whether in the virtual sphere or in what remains of the public commons. As identity continues to be articulated in virtual sites (previously idealized as “free” cyber utopias), so do biopolitical mechanisms extend past physical space and thread through both body and avatar. On the other hand, identity politics—when enunciated on or offline—continues to provide a powerful form of resistance to the above-mentioned attacks. Navigating the tension between public (exhibited artworks) and private (personal diaries) forms of self-identification, Leonilson cultivates an almost-autonomous personhood—a “confessional inclination,” as the curators term it.
While Leonilson’s work was exhibited extensively in Brazil before and after his death in 1993, and in many Western European countries, this is the first solo show of the artist’s work in the United States. Previously, Leonilson’s work was exhibited in one of the Museum of Modern Art’s Projects series in 1996 a two-person show with Oliver Hering. The current exhibition, however, invokes his project of blurring intimate selfhood with (self-)mythologizing poetics. Rather than accepting or rejecting any one polemic that structures Leonilson’s legacy, the organizers allow multiple historical narratives to coalesce. As they write in their introduction to a forthcoming book on Leonilson: he “frequently framed imagination as fact and fact as imagination, all while maintaining the confessional or diaristic tone of his autobiographical project.”
As is often the case with artists who die young, specific historical narratives quickly dominate discussion of their work. The legacies of Ana Mendieta and Bas Jan Ader are clear examples of how a single event or mythology can dictate a specific reception of otherwise broad and multifaceted practices, until historians choose to “reopen” discourses on their work. Leonilson clearly fits into this mold. His deeply intimate and poetic embroideries, produced during the last three years of his life, are often discussed regarding their materiality at the expense of other media and strategies in his practice—his large painted and unstretched canvases with imperfectly sewn edges, for example. The curators take a very bold approach to invalidating the primacy of this reading. Rather than starting chronologically, or engaging in medium-specific categorizations, the show begins with a room comprised (almost) entirely of such embroideries and mixed media works produced in the three years following his H.I.V. diagnosis and before his untimely death at age 36. Dismissing this historical reading, Mirro (Mirror, c. 1975) hangs on a wall next to the introductory wall text, facing the other works. It depicts a simplified face with the word “mirro” sewn upside-down and in reverse and, as the wall label attests, is his first attempt at self-portraiture. The stitching recalls a (dual) “reflection,” of the spectator’s reception, and the artist’s laborious performance of identity. Inconspicuously placed among the time-specific arrangement which parrots claims that the embroideries are to be read exclusively in their relation to the histories of queer, 80s, and post-dictatorial regime Brazilian art, Mirro’s date completely unsettles such narratives. Before the Geração 80 (‘80s Generation) was to be consecrated into (Brazilian) art history, and before the AIDS crisis destroyed countless lives and communities, Leonilson had already begun to depict the/his body, stitch semiotic games, and indulge in a (semi-fictive) autobiographical impulse.
Among the room’s arrangement is O Ilha (The Island, 1991), a small embroidery on a canvas support sparsely populated with image and text. In the center, a simple human form is decorated with assorted buttons. To its right, Leonilson pairs the feminine noun ilha with a masculine article. Such a linguistic shift surely recalls Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that changes in vocabulary are “both the condition and the result of breaking away from the ordinary representation associated with the idea of a ruling class.”1 However, we must acknowledge Leonilson’s oft-quoted remark that he is not a “big advocate,” nor does he carry a banner—insisting that his work is not “political.” Lagnado, acknowledging a somewhat progressivist impulse, calls this technique “gender syllepsis”: a form of fluidity akin to the non-binary approach Leonilson applies to fact/fiction and private/public memory and histories.
In the other two rooms, Leonilson’s paintings, drawings, embroideries, mixed media works, and photographic/printed matter are organized into series of projects (trans-historical, rather than teleological). In Cheio, vazio (Full, Empty, 1993), for example, Leonilson stiches together four panels of different fabrics, two with the word “full” embroidered on them, the others with “empty.” Clearly this is a reference to Lygia Clark, one of his major artistic influences, along with another “non-artist” Arthur Bispo de Rosário. It also recalls and denies the Conceptual textual grid, as in Sol LeWitt’s Red Square, White Letters (1963), while parodying the clean conceptualism with its decisively material labor.
Perhaps most important to mention for fear of its being overlooked is frescoe ulises: a transcription of Leonilson’s self-recorded audio diary (1990-1992) placed in a vitrine near Mirro. While never released to the public, the recordings have been partially reproduced in two films: A Paixão de JL (The Passion of JL, 2015) and Com o oceano inteiro para nadar (With All the Ocean to Swim In, 1997)—both of which were screened as part of the exhibition programming. In the former, Leonilson describes how he feels isolated after his diagnosis, how people can no longer love him due to his body’s implicit “danger.” Among his private thoughts, intimate happenings, and quotidian accounts, he records his uncontrollable tears as the U.S. bombs Iraq, the process of producing various works, his love life, and medical treatment. In doing so, the recordings document, and articulate, his identity along the divide across private/public histories which are interwoven. While the diary was ostensibly not intended to leave the intimate private space of the home, the question remains: for whom does he perform such self-historicizing? The same question might be asked of many of his works. In total, the works attest to the autobiographical totality Leonilson affirms which include traces of himself and of the external world in textual or allegorical form. Before our contemporary reliance on virtual exhibitionism and avatar construction, Leonilson enunciated an emancipatory potential to be fostered in authoring private “facts” in a semi-public realm, truthful or otherwise.
- Pierre Bourdieu, “Social Space and Symbolic Power,” in In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology, trans. Matthew Adamson, 123-139 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), 127.
Andreas Petrossiants is a New York-based art historian, and a frequent contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.