Brazilian artist José Leonilson (1957–1993) is a legendary figure in his homeland, where he is esteemed for the poetic vision he expressed during a period of social crisis. His work has rarely been shown in the United States, however, and this illuminating exhibition, “José Leonilson: Empty Man,” offered a comprehensive introduction to his quietly powerful art. Though his career was brief, spanning just over ten years, Leonilson was remarkably prolific, producing some 3,400 works before he succumbed to AIDS at age thirty-six. As evidenced by the forty-five pieces in the show, he explored a broad range of mediums, from oil painting and collage to found-object sculpture and the text-laden embroidery work that preoccupied him in the last few years of his life.
Born José Leonilson Bezerra Dias in Fortaleza, a city in northeast Brazil, and educated in São Paulo, Leonilson attracted national attention in 1984 when his work was included in “Como vai você, Geração 80?” (How Are You, Generation 80?), an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro that helped launch the careers of Beatriz Milhazes, Daniel Senise, Ana Maria Tavares, and other then-young Brazilian artists who eventually established international reputations. Leonilson subsequently traveled extensively in Europe and visited New York on several occasions. Much of his art centers on his experiences as a gay man during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early ’90s. For that reason, he has often been compared to artists such as David Wojnarowicz and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Leonilson, however, did not regard himself as a gay-rights activist, and his art is best appreciated as a personal exploration.
The Americas Society show, which was organized by independent curator Cecilia Brunson and Americas Society chief curator Gabriela Rangel and assistant curator Susanna V. Temkin, was arranged in reverse chronological order. It opened with several remarkable embroidered pieces, such as Empty Man (1991), a rather elaborate composition in which the artist embellished a piece of found embroidered fabric. The antique cloth features a highly stylized illustration in vermilion thread showing a hare chasing a turtle. To this image, Leonilson added in black thread a rendering of a table with broken legs, a headless torso, and
a rather cryptic poem in slightly broken English: no bombs / no castles on sand / no drums / it’s on me / salt, blood, salive / empty man / lone / ready.
An elegiac tone balanced by acerbic wit runs through pieces that address themes like queer identity and the human body’s simultaneous beauty and abjectness. Much of Leonilson’s low-tech, handmade output conveys a forlornness that occasionally veers toward the maudlin. The work also harbors a sincere, though carefully calibrated, pathos. One large, self-referential painting, for example, Leo não consegue mudar o mundo (Leo Can’t Change the World, 1989), features a schematic rendering of a human heart at the center of a blood-red field. Deliberately crude lettering at the top of the canvas spells out the work’s title, and the Portuguese words for “solitary” and “dissatisfied” radiate from the heart, underscoring the artist’s frustration at his inability to make a significant social difference.
Ninguen (Nobody, 1992) consists of a pillow whose off-white cotton case Leonilson embroidered with old-fashioned floral patterns. On the upper left, he discreetly added small letters in black that spell the work’s title. With nonchalant charm, this unassuming object delivers an outsize emotional wallop when one realizes it was created while the artist knowingly awaited his impending demise, which occurred just months later.