Joyce Kozloff: Uncivil Wars
On ViewDC Moore Gallery
June 21 – August 13, 2021
The Civil War may have officially ended at Appomattox, but as made obvious by the Confederate battle flags in the videos of the January 6, 2021, insurrection, white supremacy as a political force has never gone away. Joyce Kozloff charts that flash point, and others, in Uncivil Wars with paintings from 2020 and 2021 based on maps, a favorite theme, of famous Civil War battles: Shiloh, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and so on. Kozloff brings to bear her considerable Pattern and Decoration chops, reinterpreting with bold compositions and colors the plans created by Union and Confederate soldiers. On every map, she also paints renderings of the COVID-19 coronavirus, juxtaposing past and present in an urgent appeal to confront the forces—political, economic, and cultural—that have made this country as divided as it has ever been since the Civil War. DC Moore has included three earlier bodies of works on paper that add to Kozloff’s wry meditations on US and global history. Uncivil Wars extends Kozloff’s decades-long political agitation against the brutal injustices of the past that continue to infect, literally with COVID, our present.
Some of the works are so visually appealing that you could almost forget you are looking at a battle map from a war that killed about 625,000 combatants, slightly more than have officially died from COVID. The palette in Uncivil Wars: Battle of Vicksburg (2020) stops you in your tracks. The indigo background offsets the hairpin turn of the Mississippi River, painted in ribbons of orange and pink. The Rebel defenses on the bluffs of Vicksburg, from which they pummeled the Union forces coming up the river, are crisscrossed in a grid of red lines that then spread across the highlands in snaking tendrils. Patches of pale yellow and other assorted colors complete the composition, painted in such detail that the eye constantly dives in and out from part to whole. Uncivil Wars: The Battle of Vicksburg opens the imagination to wondering what it must have been like on the ground during that pivotal siege that cemented General Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation. Floating across the map are several indigo coronaviruses, looking like so many sea mines.
Uncivil Wars: The Battle of Chancellorsville (2021) is another riveting piece in vivid reds, yellows, and oranges surrounding the Chancellorsville area painted in lime green. Here the coronaviruses look more like bursting fireworks of red and blue. Chancellorsville was one of Lee’s greatest triumphs against a Union force more than twice as large as the Confederates. It also resulted in the second bloodiest encounter of the war, with almost 30,000 casualties in a single day. The electrifying colors and the bursting quality of the viruses give this painting an overheated feeling certainly in keeping with the level of conflict at that battle. Again, the intense level of detail sucks you into imagining what it must have been like to be there, bringing home the enormity of the loss of life and treasure, and destruction to the countryside.
Oddly, the most moving painting had the most prosaic content, bringing to mind Hannah Arendt’s famous essay on the banality of evil.” Uncivil Wars: Battle of Petersburg (2021) has a simple composition of a yellow and pink hexagon—Dinwiddie County, VA, where the actual siege took place—against an electric blue background. Whereas other paintings in Uncivil Wars have graphic details that captivate the viewer, with Uncivil Wars: Battle of Petersburg the telling details are in the map’s text. Dinwiddie County is covered with not only place names, such as “Court House,” presumably the county seat, but the names of the county’s inhabitants: A. Williams, J. Brooks, W. Goodwin, and so forth. These ordinary Anglo-Saxon-sounding names brought to life the everyday inhabitants who benefitted directly from the evils of chattel slavery, the premise for the South’s secession. These were the people for whom the Confederate forces were fighting and dying. Many of their descendants adopted “The Lost Cause” narrative that paved the way for segregation and Jim Crow; the fallout from this institutional racism plagues us today in countless ways. Eerily prescient, Kozloff’s coronaviruses that float across Uncivil Wars make apt stand-ins not only for that toxic ideology but also the Delta variant now infecting—and killing—anti-vaxxers, many of them die-hard partisans of Trump’s “Big Lie,” a Lost Cause avatar. These paintings tell a powerful story of where we are as a nation, and how we got here.