Shaun Leonardo: The Breath of Empty Space
Curated by John Chaich
On ViewMaryland Institute College of Art
January 30 – March 15, 2020
In the weeks following Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of six Baltimore police officers, it became near impossible to see the act’s simple truth: ruthless violence committed on a Black body. The ensuing unrest sparked a media cycle that favored replayed clips of looting and arson over coverage of peaceful protests and community discourse, serving to mute—or prevent altogether—any sense of mourning or reflection. This shift from private to public trauma, amplified to the national level, brought with it an obscuring of Gray’s body, of its tangibility in the world. So, parting the soft curtains in front of Shaun Leonardo’s Freddie Gray triptych (2015), I was faced with a startling image: a tender rendering of Gray’s pained face, his body held by two pairs of faceless arms, their thin outlines dissipating into the paper’s fiber. On adjacent panels, the officers’ faces are depicted, but Gray’s body is absent. While the piece’s allusion to devotional triptychs (coupled with its display behind curtains) provides a primary reference for its somber mood, the glaring emptiness of its unfinished sections furthers its elegiac character. By conflating multiple viewpoints of a single event in a composite piece, Leonardo subverts the traditional form of a multi-scene triptych, asking the viewer to consider social memory’s plural sources and distortions.
Shaun Leonardo’s current exhibition, The Breath of Empty Space, posits a simple act of resistance: to excavate these optical memories, sifting through their noise. In his repeated drawings of news photographs surrounding violence against Black men, Leonardo builds a system that questions a singular image’s capacity for truth-telling.
In two drawings (2016) based on dashcam footage of the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, Leonardo highlights how criminal evidence, once released into the public sphere, fractures into multivalent readings. The video source itself is surprisingly clear: it shows McDonald walking away from police before being shot repeatedly. Yet, searching for that reference video online, one encounters an onslaught of distractions—audio clips of police radio chatter that night, news text attempting to contextualize the situation overlaid over the video, even a grotesque animation of the incident designed for use in the subsequent trial. That noise, and its ability to prime and bias the viewer’s experience, seems to me to be the subject of Leonardo’s repeated renderings of the scene.
While one drawing depicts McDonald walking down the street in a haze of lights and asphalt, the other features only police vehicles on the empty street, the location of McDonald’s body a gray blur. Charcoal, Leonardo’s chosen medium for these pieces, allows for their facture to mimic the fate of their source images. It is applied in exacting lines, only to be smudged, brushed, and smoothed into illusionistic submission, leaving ghostly traces of its initial contours. If these drawings can be considered analogues of their referent stills, accumulating destabilizing marks over time, then Leonardo’s hand enacts a sort of intentional degradation upon their surfaces. The warping streetlights and brushed-out subjects here speak both to the fallibility of human memory and to a general distrust of images; shapes are clustered pixels, lines are ambiguous shadows, and texture is some general static. Though Robert Longo is an obvious reference, I am reminded more of William Kentridge’s charcoal animations, their erased frames persisting as glaring pentimenti, or David Hammons’s “body prints,” which record the compressed space between a body and substrate.
“The Breath of Empty Space” is taken from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882), but is also paired in the exhibition text with Eric Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe.” This emptiness is most prominent in a series of drawings whose frames include selective mirrored tint on the glass, reflecting the viewer’s gaze straight back at them. What is interesting to consider is the degree to which these optical deviations ask the viewer to participate in an active reading of the images. In my attempt to see past the obscuring elements of the frame, I caught my contorted reflection in the mirror. Perhaps I was encouraged to look closer, from different vantage points, to be more thorough in my observation; or, perhaps I was caught in the mirror, implicated in my consumption of mediated images.
These are divergent threads, and the exhibition pulls in many directions at once. In a video piece, Leonardo recites sections of Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) to a funereal crowd on the High Line, accompanied by a New Orleans jazz band. In more mirror-tinted drawings, he constructs images of the 1991 police killing of Federico Pereira, an incident void of any visual evidence. In these speculative compositions, a Baroque sense of drama unfolds, chiaroscuro set against reflective forms obscuring Pereira’s body.
Images of trauma morph and disintegrate in Leonardo’s hands. If emptiness is what is being surveyed here—the emptiness between digital image and viewer, the voids created by acts of violence, the holes and inconsistencies in our perception—then Leonardo’s approach is sound, as it plays to his medium’s strengths. If this vast noise can be tuned out, it may just be through the austere act of drawing, of choosing, with lines and blur, an intentional picture.