Through a series of intimate drawings based on images widely disseminated in the press and popular media, and accessed from his own recollection of these tragedies, Leonardo applies the additive nature of drawing — a rigorous visual editing — to explore the reductive nature of memory, powerfully addressing how time and the endless cycling of images in the media affect what we remember, and what we forget. The artist employs material strategies of blurring, removing, die-cut, and mirrored tint to draw attention to information and to reframe content.
Leonardo and MASS MoCA have a long-standing relationship. Leonardo is scheduled to be a featured artist in the Defining Moments exhibition in Kidspace in 2022, and prior to that will also organize a social practice project titled You Walk… for a dedicated interactive community space within the museum in 2021. In 2018, a number of the works in The Breath of Empty Space were shown at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) Gallery 51, in the exhibition Witness, which Thompson — who is also a professor at MCLA in North Adams — involved her class in organizing. In 2016 at MASS MoCA, Leonardo conducted an artist residency with teens in conjunction with the exhibition Nick Cave: Until, which focused on race and policing.
The exhibition extends the exploration of race and masculinity — and the power structures that form and uphold them — that is at the core of Leonardo’s practice. Created between 2014 and 2019, this series asks viewers to confront uncomfortable images in order to bear witness to and recall the names, bodies, and lives of those depicted, from Rodney King and the “Central Park Five” to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark, and beyond.
“For these drawings, I take some of the most widely disseminated images of police violence, both recent and historical, and make choices that I think will slow down our looking,” Leonardo said. “I wish to literally create space in these images, so that we can sit with them differently, even in the hurt. I am intentionally removing or isolating details in order to point to the absence of lives lost and to critical information that would otherwise go overlooked. Ultimately, I want to turn people’s looking into bearing witness.”
The works in this exhibition offer but a few instances of violence. Just months since its debut at MICA in January 2020, the United States has witnessed the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and many more. In this environment of systemic violence against Black and Brown bodies, Leonardo continues to encourage us to engage in complex dialogues around race, representation, and the power of art, with the belief that art, and thoughtful conversation about it, can inspire change.
Following its premiere at MICA, The Breath of Empty Space was intended to travel to MoCA Cleveland, but the exhibition was cancelled before it was scheduled to open and before the artist was able to engage in meaningful discourse with the community. Leonardo considers community dialogue, and his own personal engagement with communities, to be at the very center of his work.
Programming relating to The Breath of Empty Space includes:
Curriculum Takeover is a program that brings together a group of 10 Berkshire County teens to work with artist Shaun Leonardo to co-develop an arts-based Black Lives Matter curriculum intervention inspired by his drawing series. The curriculum will be a virtual teaching resource where students can direct their own and their peers’ learning around racial injustice.
In Session, a MASS MoCA and MCLA Berkshire Cultural Resource Center collaborative community engagement program, that will be held virtually every other month. This program will bring together artists, museum professionals, and community agents of change to consider topics surrounding anti-racist work in the sphere of cultural institutions. In Session will kick off on December 10 with a discussion with artists on trauma and the consumption of art and media. Learn more here.
About the Artist
Shaun Leonardo’s multidisciplinary work negotiates societal expectations of manhood, namely definitions surrounding Black and Brown masculinities, along with its notions of achievement, collective identity, and experience of failure. His performance practice, anchored by his work in Assembly – a diversion program for court-involved youth at the Brooklyn-based, non-profit Recess – is participatory and invested in a process of embodiment. Leonardo is a Brooklyn-based artist from Queens, New York City. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, is a recipient of support from Creative Capital, Guggenheim Social Practice, Art for Justice, and A Blade of Grass, and was recently profiled in The New York Times. His work has been featured at The Guggenheim Museum, The High Line, and New Museum, with a recent solo exhibition at MICA. From fall 2018 through spring 2020, Leonardo enacted socially engaged projects at Pratt Institute as the School of Art’s Visiting Fellow.
An extension of The Breath of Empty Space, MASS MoCA shares a video and transcript of Leonardo’s performance The Eulogy.
Programming at MASS MoCA is made possible in part by the Barr Foundation, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and Mass Cultural Council.
Image: Courtesy of the artist