Sunday, August 27, 2017

David Knox at Cole Pratt

What is it about the Civil War, anyway? It killed more Americans than both world wars and Vietnam combined, yet the stark realities of that horrific conflict are often veiled in mystery. Although neither side understood what we now call "human rights," only one side fought to own humans like livestock. The wealthy have often avoided warfare, but only one side exempted rich slave owners from the draft. My father's Confederate ancestors faced a dire choice: fight for the planter oligarchy or abandon home and head north. Those grim realities got glossed over in gauzy romantic fantasies like Gone With The Wind that gave the Old South a hold on the popular imagination for generations until more realistic accounts like 12 Years a Slave finally came along. This Ritual and Ruin show of Civil War-era images on panoramic metal plates explores the shattered yet surreal dreams the Lost Cause left in its wake.

Civil War photographs are often striking for the dramatic intensity that so often attends those living on the edge of annihilation. In Seven Kings, below, a group of army officers pose atop a battle-blasted earthen ziggurat as ironclad gunboats patrol the troubled waters below. The figures are stiff as statues, but their surroundings seem to crackle with the foggy fury of war. Harbingers of the Last Judgment, above, depicts a dugout where dazed troops slouch warily as ghostly white horses graze a pock-marked field where a stately mansion rises in the distance.  In The Ordination of Tobin Porter Brown, top, a drummer boy and a broom-wielding slave guard an ornate gateway to a street reduced to ruins as an army general and his wife pose placidly behind a picket fence.

In all of these panoramic collage prints, the figures and landscapes are hauntingly real, but their dreamy composition reflect what Joan Didion called “a memory haunted landscape” where souls sundered by war's unholy madness must contemplate, and try to make peace with, their fate. ~Bookhardt / Ritual and Ruin -- Tableaux of a Lost War: New Photographic Works by David Knox; Through Sept. 19th, Cole Pratt Gallery, 3800 Magazine St., 891-6789.