The Breath of Empty Space
Even the most chilling photographs—images that force society to grind to a stop, to examine itself, to loathe what it sees—can lose something to the unceasing bloodlust of the internet. Photographs are subject to quality degradation, meme-making, the caesura of context, the inevitable habituation of over-familiar images.
Shaun Leonardo's "The Breath of Empty Space" shows at the Bronx Museum after the exhibition's controversial cancellation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, a result of activists' and family members' concerns regarding the depiction of lethal violence in the very city in which it occurred, coupled with institutions' instinctual antipathy to controversy in politically charged moments.
The works on view center victims of law enforcement as well protests over living conditions and treatment at correctional facilities. Though they reference the images that have proliferated ceaselessly in the wake of police killings, Leonardo's drawings argue for a new way of looking and attention, and with it, of nuance and empathy. Rendered in the blurred blacks and grays of charcoal, some bodies are blurred, preemptively haunted, as in Laquan McDonald (2016) [drawing 1 of 2 pictured]. Others, such as Freddy Pereira (2019), feature planes of mirror-tint in place of the victims' bodies. Reflecting our faces back at us, like the sins they depict, they contain something that cannot be fully captured on camera, something unstable in our collective memory. They suggest our complicity, and call for a self-reckoning in each of us.
Shaun Leonardo, Laquan McDonald (Drawing 1 of 2), 2016. Charcoal on paper. Courtesy of Richard Betts.