Reproduction of the Mouth
"The enemy of art is indifference," says Joanne Leah. The Brooklyn based artist and photographer has been painstakingly crafting a body, an almost broken body of work tackling sexuality's blurred edges, the primal subconscious forces that move in us and that her subjects act out on the brave frontier of art's fleshy landscape. All the rituals aligning bodies are here absented and emptied of their religion, their hyper-morality, a fierce and uncompromising look under the hood of our sheltered skins, baring the experimental teeth of our electrical soul. "I was never given the mental tools to have a healthy relationship with femininity and sex," Leah says, adding; "I had to experience many negative relationships to finally learn how to reclaim my sexuality as a woman. This body of work is an important journey for me." Reconciling and wrestling with all those inherited inner antagonisms that block up a body and mind, these images, contorted, pained, desexualized, almost broken but still miraculously holding together, serve to provoke reactions that can be transformative and clue us in to some of our own missing pieces. Puzzle work is life's constant reminder of its own absence of meaning, art is the language that gives us a world and bodies to contend with, the creative layers, stripped and stacked anew, bring us closer to a mystery which constantly removes itself from capture. Joanne Leah sets artistic bear traps in the dark inner forests as a thorny reminder that our world is multi-faceted and open to invention, contortion, and sometimes even magic.
AHC: What has your own personal evolution towards a life in art & photography been like, are there a series of moments you can recall where this path, this calling, began to become the one clearly marked for you?
Joanne: Because of my religious upbringing, I have always been interested in the esoteric. In elementary school, I would repeatedly check out books from the library about witchcraft and astral projection. I would create magical elixirs using common kitchen ingredients and also practice leaving my body as I fell asleep at night. As a teenager I experimented with psychedelic drugs. I was able to alter my sensory perception, creating experiences that continue to influence me as an adult.
I never considered myself a photographer. In art school, I studied sculpture, then switched to fashion design because I wanted to make wearable sculptures. I took photography classes to document my work. I started exploring sexuality in my practice in 2007, taking erotic self portraits as a way to escape an unhappy marriage. A turning point was when the lines of subject and photographer became blurred and mirrored exhibitionist and voyeur lines. I transitioned to shooting subjects in 2010.
This current body of work (I didn’t realize it at the time) started in May, 2014. It was a casual investigation at first, and developed into an honest analyzation of my childhood memories. I direct my subjects to interact with objects and substances while they move around, stand and kneel on the floor, their faces obscured. I create a transcendent memory through a sense of confinement and meditation using composition, color, physical positioning and the tactile quality of the materials used. I visualize myself conducting otherworldly, ritualistic psychological experiments. I also pull a lot of inspiration from fetish, pornography and the male gaze.
AHC: Could you explore and expand on some of the motivating ideas at work in your photography and the process behind the making of them? You've described harrowing early experiences which have irrevocably shaped your outlook and feel of the world, themes of isolation, detachment, fear and identity thread their way throughout your images. Do you find that provocation, the shocking (or more aptly, honest image) bears also deep catharsis, if we're willing to brave the dark forest of our own lives?
JL: My motivation is part compulsion, part psychological experiment and part dominatrix. My work is about sensation and I want the viewer to feel what my subject feels using their own sensual interpretations. I desexualize nudity by portraying the nude form abstractly, almost broken. The enemy of art is indifference. I feel that I have a responsibility to provoke a reaction rather than the work being decorative.
Each image is a facet of my fantasy world. Sometimes I don't know where the images come from, but I research constantly: painters, sculptors, philosophy, photography, music, literature and history, finding pieces of information that connect with my subconscious vision. I "collect" props, food, liquids, colors and human subjects. Each concept, object and subject is chosen carefully based on how they will interact. I think through playful nudity, and subconsciously censoring mostly female body parts, I am dealing with my own feminine sexual identity. I was a tomboy growing up and raised Catholic, sexuality was not discussed or encouraged at home. I recently had a baby, and she has made me realize that I was never given the mental tools to have a healthy relationship with femininity and sex. I had to experience many negative relationships to finally learn how to reclaim my sexuality as a woman. This body of work is an important journey for me.
AHC: Having faced censorship as an artist, what is your message to others facing this battle, what tools are at our disposal to push back on what is still, sadly, an all too puritanical world? Do you see changes at work, or do you feel that we are still, at times, not too far removed from the court room mentality that debated the artistic merit of James Joyce, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg?
JL: Algorithms, machine learning, AI. Optimization, automation, relevance. This is language defining contemporary human interaction with data. Information is continuously filtered, flagged or removed by AI pattern recognition. Machines are now co-constructors of identity, designing a culture of context. Our only way of communicating with this AI is through social media. My artistic practice works parallel to social media algorithms, using censorship as an element and creating confusing compositions that are unrecognizable to the programming. Simultaneously, I am building a database of artist narratives, images and resources, giving individuals a voice, reacting to this new kind of censorship: artistsagainstcensorship.com
In middle school, I remember hearing for the first time, that another girl mowed her lawn
The Weirdest Question I Have Ever Asked
AHC: Who are some of your artistic influences? Is there anyone outside of the art/photography world who has had a huge impact on you and your work or who just generally inspire you on some level, writers, filmmakers, comedians, musicians, teachers/mentors, family members?
JL: Visual Artists: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Hans Bellmer, Max Ernst, Marilyn Minter
Philosophy: Carl Jung’s, Man and His Symbols, Gestalt Psychology
Musicians: Oren Ambarchi, Sunn O))) and Coil’s Time Machines album
Family: My husband is my printer and muse, he has helped me realize my vision in so many ways. My infant daughter is teaching me how to truly let go.
Subjects: Their complete trust and surrender.
AHC: What do you consider, personally, to be the most sacred and enduring aspects of art? How does it enrich our world and our cultural memory? How has it enriched or altered your own life?
JL: The sacredness of art is when idea, process and outcome happen simultaneously. What is shown is evidence of the ritual, depicting a metaphor for a cycle of transformation: conception, birth, death, rebirth. Art is the subconscious primal pulse, reverberating through society, challenging what we consider acceptable.
In order for memory to be most effective, it must involve all of our senses. I want people to be able to feel my images using their own sensual biographies. Through shared vulnerability, and subconsciously censoring mostly female body parts, I am understanding my own feminine sexual identity.
AHC: In your opinion, what does art, at its finest moments, bring into the world that would otherwise leave us more impoverished without it?
JL: Ritual in the absence of religion. Otherworldliness in the absence of spirituality. Conviction in the absence of faith. Examination in the absence of morality.
AHC: What is the first work of art you encountered that took your breath away, that lit a fire in you?
JL: I was lucky enough to see Yoko Ono’s Fly, at my university gallery in the 90s, and it changed my life.
Love's Secret Domain
AHC: Is there any art or photography you've come across that shocks or scares you? Even in a good way?
JL: Nothing is shocking or scary in this world of over-stimulation.
AHC: Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for young artists and other creatives who are experiencing self-doubt in their art, frustration or blocks? What are the types of things that have helped you to move past moments where you may have become stuck creatively?
JL: Don't listen to advice and keep working.
AHC: Do you have any upcoming exhibits or new projects you'd like to tell people about?
JL: I will have work in the group exhibition, 18+, at Recspec Gallery in Austin, TX opening February 16. Le Petit Voyeur included me in their latest issue, releasing in February, and they will also be displaying prints of my work at their launch party in Copenhagen. I will be showing large scale works at a show here in NYC in early March (details soon). NSFW: Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex has been extended until April, including a special event to celebrate the show. A friend’s cafe recently commissioned me to create a wall mural in Brooklyn. I’m also working on several collaborative and curatorial projects this year that I’m super excited about.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.