Shaun Leonardo: The Breath of Empty Space

Shaun Leonardo: The Breath of Empty Space presents drawings by the Brooklyn-based artist that critique how mediated images of systemic violence against Black and Brown young men in contemporary American history have shaped our fear, empathy, and perception. Created between 2014 and 2019, the works trace high profile stories of lives ended or forever altered by systems of law enforcement from the 1970s to today.

Leonardo encourages a new and nuanced way of looking at the content—and ourselves. Through his intimate drawings based on images widely circulated in popular media, the artist calls on the additive nature of drawing to explore the reductive nature of memory, examining how time and circulation affect what is recalled, forgotten, or ignored. The use of mirrored tint, blurring, highlight, negative space, and semi-opaque die-cut, redirects the eye in order to question what and how we see while reframing the embodied knowledge we bring to the images before us.

A call for empathetic witnessing, The Breath of Empty Space aims to create a space for quiet contemplation. The artist, curator, and The Bronx Museum of the Arts acknowledge the impact that the content may have on viewers. We believe the gallery experience and accompanying programming encourages reflection, conversation, and critique of the systems and issues explored. As we mourn the magnitude of Black and Brown lives lost, we honor the necessary, ongoing work within communities to seek justice. Thank you for your openness, willingness, and presence.

This exhibition is organized by independent curator John Chaich and previously traveled to the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Jan 21 - May 30, 2021

About Shaun Leonardo

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, arts nonprofit 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 and CNN. His work has been featured at The Guggenheim Museum, the High Line, and New Museum, with his current solo exhibition, The Breath of Empty Space, recently presented at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Starting in 2021, Leonardo joins Recess as Co-Director, helping guide the organization’s continuous evolution as an engine of social change.

About John Chaich

John Chaich is an independent curator and designer interested in otherness, materiality, and communication. He has curated a range of group and solo exhibitions including Mixed Messages: A(I)DS, Art, and Words, produced for Visual AIDS at La MaMa Galleria, New York, and Transformer, Washington, DC; Queer Threads: Crafting Identity & Community at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts, and the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles; Catalina Schliebener: Growing Sideways at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division, NYC and Hache Galleria, Buenos Aires; Vivek Shraya: Trisha at the Ace Hotel New York; Queering the BiblioObject at the Center for Book Arts; and Shaun Leonardo: The Breath of Empty Space at Maryland Institute College of Art, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

Recently, he served as curatorial consultant for the exhibition, T.J. Dedeaux-Norris Presents The Estate of Tameka Jenean Norris at the Figge Museum, Iowa and curated André Terrel Jackson: Crowns and Zoe Schlacter: Darn at Transformer and The Corner at Whitman-Walker, DC, as well as related artist lectures in collaboration with The George Washington University Museum/The Textile Museum, and American University Museum. With Todd Oldham, he edited the coffee table book “Queer Threads,” which received the American Library Association’s 2018 Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award.

Chaich received his MFA in Communications Design from Pratt Institute, where he is a visiting instructor.

Exhibition Support

Support for this exhibition has been generously provided by SRI Fine Arts Services and the Director’s Circle, the Bronx Museum’s premier support group.


    • Laquan McDonald, Charcoal on paper, 2016. Courtesy of Richard Betts. Drawing 1 of 2.
    • Laquan McDonald, Charcoal on paper, 2016. Courtesy of Richard Betts. Drawing 2 of 2.
    • Rodney King, Charcoal on paper, with mirrored tint on frame, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
    • Attica, Charcoal on paper, with mirrored tint on frame, 2018. Courtesy of the Jimmin Seo.
    • Freddy Pereira, Charcoal on paper, with mirrored tint on frame, 2020. Courtesy of the artist. Work 1 of 3.
    • Freddy Pereira, Charcoal on paper, with mirrored tint on frame, 2020. Courtesy of the artist. Work 2 of 3.
    • Freddy Pereira, Charcoal on paper, with mirrored tint on frame, 2020. Courtesy of the artist. Work 3 of 3.

    Videos Related to the Exhibition

    Introduction by the Artist

    Watch as featured artist, Shaun Leonardo, welcomes guests to his exhibition “Shaun Leonardo: The Breath of Empty Space” at The Bronx Museum of the Arts. In this video, Leonardo gives a brief overview of the show and encourages visitors to sit with their feelings as they take in his work.

    Virtual Walkthrough and Public Conversation

    Poetic Reponse by Mahogany L. Browne, 4:40

    Virtual walkthrough with Shaun Leonardo and curator John Chaich, 7:50

    Conversation, 41:40

    Representing vs. Re-presenting: Unpacking Methods of Visibility

    Poetic Reponse and letter by Jimin Seo

    Conversation between Shaun Leonardo, Steve Locke, and Jamel Shabazz, moderated by Holly Block Social Justice Curator Jasmine Wahi

    What Does Art Do For You? A Youth-Centered Conversation About Art and Possibility

    Poetic Reponse by Anaïs Duplan

    Conversation between Shaun Leonardo, members of the Bronx Museum Teen Council, and Recess: Assembly Peer Leaders discussing how the arts help us think and move with and through hope, struggle, and despair.

    Art21 Feature on the Artist

    On Wednesday, February 3, 2021, Art21 released this video titled “Shaun Leonardo: The Freedom to Move,” as part of their “New York Close Up” series.

    The Eulogy (A Performance Piece by Shaun Leonardo)

    The Eulogy (2015 – 2017) recreates a New Orleans Jazz funeral procession to hold space for bodies who no longer physically can. Towering above the audience, Leonardo recites a script that combines his own words, honoring the young Black men whose lives he reflects upon in The Breath of Empty Space, with excerpts from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man.

    Download a transcript of The Eulogy here.

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