at the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago, through February 21

Several years ago, when I was traveling through the German Democratic Republic with a group of fellow students, someone in my group was severely reprimanded by officials for taking pictures in an area where such activity was prohibited. I still remember the thrill this encounter with espionage gave me.

Zoe Leonard’s black-and-white photography offers the same adrenaline rush of discovery and transgression inherent in espionage. Oftentimes grainy, a bit out of focus, and hastily framed, the photos in her show at the Renaissance Society feature an eclectic range of subjects: anatomical models, stuffed dead animals, large-scale landscapes, and female genitalia. Many are presented in pairs of almost-identical images, or one image is repeated in a series. Leonard’s photographs also vary in size; so the show, which the artist installed herself, is beautifully balanced spatially, arranged in pairs, series, and single images. Several pieces are what Leonard calls “recycled”–images she has presented in other installations or exhibitions.

Leonard’s photographic investigations concern the role of certain objects, among them animals and women, in the formation of scientific knowledge and aesthetics, two areas of intellectual endeavor that have long been the exclusive domain of men. The most compelling aspect of her photography is the tension she sustains between photography’s objectivity and subjectivity: the views Leonard captures are always both documentary records and studies of form. The interaction between the work as evidence of wrongdoing and as art-for-its-own-sake is the constant beneath what appears to be a wide surface divergence.

As trivial as they might seem at first, the objects Leonard treats are tools of intellectual history that have left deep marks on current beliefs. While it can be said that the art world has recently progressed to the point where women like Zoe Leonard are less and less outsiders, a long history of exclusion and manipulation remains: thus the qualities of distance, unfamiliarity, and transience that characterize many of Leonard’s photographs. Leonard is also a lesbian artist, and the art world has only recently acknowledged the very possibility of a lesbian gaze or the lesbian subject. Her photographs can be seen as bits of evidence gathered at such off-limits and arcane sites as the scientific archive or the machismo spectacle of the bullfight. “Photography,” Leonard said in a discussion at the opening, “is a most central metaphor for perspective, in terms of identity–the sharing of a certain view.” This show presents a selection of her recent work, which also seems linked to traditional photographic genres such as landscape and the grotesque.

Leonard was propelled into the international limelight as the enfant terrible of the Documenta IX art fair in Kassel, Germany, last summer, where she installed what she calls “pussy pictures” (what the porno industry subtly terms “beaver shots”) next to 18th-century portraits of women in a gallery of the Neue Galerie museum. The result was sensational, and not only because it was the only display of feminist consciousness permitted at an artfest thrown by Old World good old boys (85 percent of work shown in Kassel was by male artists). Leonard’s installation was the least you hoped for in art coming out of the land of the free and the home of the Guerrilla Girls and WAC. Leonard’s Kassel installation was also the most sharp-eyed psychoanalysis of the art object I’ve seen. By placing photos of female genitals up against the baroque elegance of old portraits, Leonard established the common link between the two as manifestations, following Freud’s definition, of fetishism, a male sexual perversion that disavows the threat of castration the female body represents.

In my view art has always served, at least in part, as a fetish object for the men who create it–that is, art neutralizes, or rather disavows (again, in part), the horror and threat of the female already-castrated body. Leonard’s swap of the fetish object/painting for the actual site of “lack” the fetishist tries so hard to deny could be read as a kind of Freudian terrorism, an unveiling of the cognitive and psychic processes at work behind the male-created art object. But this reading must be only one side of the story, based as it is in the completely masculinist discourse of psychoanalysis, whose default-mode subject is the white male hetero; we live in an age that finally recognizes viewers and artists who are none of the above. Freud’s assertion that women are unable to fetishize has recently come under much attack by feminist intellectuals, and most certainly Leonard does not want to lend support to psychoanalytic explanations that privilege male heterosexuality. Instead she privileges the female viewer, either by pushing her toward identifying with the “pussy pictures” or by forcing the self-conscious masquerade of a “male” viewing, assuming women will take a more active role than traditional Freudian psychoanalysis envisions.

All this is relevant since Leonard has included seven “recycled” photographs from the Documenta installation in the Renaissance Society show, under the title Pussy/Cunt/Snatch/Box/Beaver/Vagina/Twat. Whereas the Kassel installation generated most of its power by short-circuiting the usual male denial and objectification–epitomized by the 18th-century portraits, the museum’s usual fare–the current series invites a charge that could be leveled against much of Leonard’s work: don’t these porno-inspired views also objectify women, even if they are recorded by a woman? Leonard attempts to counter charges of exploitation by presenting the images in series, perhaps diffusing the subject matter by repetition or by seemingly loosening artistic control, eliminating the unique single view that concentrates power. But I think in the end this piece was stronger in its installation in Germany; standing alone, these images do teeter on the brink of objectification.

Another piece in the show, Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman (1991), presents a series of views of a surreal knickknack uncovered in a medical college at the University of Paris. It’s hard to imagine what function this specimen–an actual decapitated head of a bearded woman, carefully labeled and cataloged–may have had in the medical community. But freaks, especially cross-gender freaks, have always been a source of fascination: a bearded lady showed up in the recent Jose de Ribera exhibition at the Met in New York, proving that the old masters liked a good sideshow, too. Leonard’s photographs of the anonymous bearded woman are part artistic study of visual forms and part expose of the sensationalistic, cruel Barnum & Bailey element that figures in fields of knowledge like medicine. Preserved Head also points to the viciousness with which nonconformity to the norms of appearance has been treated. As Leonard says, we live in a scary world.

Several works in the show focus on female anatomical models Leonard found in other medical collections and archives, most of them closed to the public. These objects strike a truly funky balance, playing a role somewhere between medical specimen and ingenue; consider the photo titled Wax Anatomical Model With Pretty Face. Another photograph features a seated nude, her torso carefully cut away to reveal her innards, who turns slightly away from the viewer, hiding her face with one waxy translucent hand while she averts her gaze flirtatiously. Most astonishing about this wax figure is the amount of work that must have gone into the careful depiction of this coy pose, presumably designed with the goal of keeping budding physicians entertained.

Leonard has also included several landscape views, most of them of cliched tourist sites like Niagara Falls and the bullfighter’s ring. Leonard’s views of these places of middle-class-tourist pilgrimage are simultaneously ordinary and highly aestheticized. She’s making references to the historical traditions of landscape photography, another field dominated by men. But she also lays claim to a certain visual privilege: the large-scale aerial vistas she presents have rarely been done by women photographers.

Arguably we’ve seen themes similar to Leonard’s in recent photography. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series, for example, examined the norms and objectification of the female body in Hollywood films. Thinking back a bit further, others have done studies of the grotesque, like Diane Arbus; and like Leonard, Lorna Simpson raises questions about the role of the female body in medicine. Critics have often identified Leonard’s work as an extended critique of the museum as an institution. But it seems to me she’s doing something a bit more complicated. Leonard uses photography to uncover objects historically used as tools in the pursuit of knowledge and progress but whose essence is exclusion. At the same time she doesn’t lose sight of her medium: her photography is both visual evidence and visual art. Leonard’s espionage in the archive bumps us up against the structures of “knowledge”–the structures of modern categorization and exploitation–that make institutions like museums and medical colleges possible. And unlike many other socially engaged artists, Leonard manages to raise consciousness without being preachy or self-righteous, and without any screaming text: here the images can speak–quietly–for themselves.