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José Leonilson: Empty Man

December 13, 2017

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”....

Read the full art review here.