New York

Joyce Kozloff

Joyce Kozloff’s “Boys’ Art” is a series of twenty-four collaged drawings based on maps, diagrams, and illustrations of mostly obscure historic battles. In these works diminutive figures in Napoleonic, Meso-American, Arabian, Mongolian, and superhero regalia preen, strut, sneak, march, and clash in colorful, lushly detailed landscapes that recall one of Kozloff’s acknowledged influences, Henry Darger. Much of the allure of these drawings stems from the pursed-lipped schoolboy earnestness with which they seem to have been executed, while the complexity of each work—the minute formations preparing to square off in Boys’ Art #24: Siege of Antibes, 1592, 2003, for example, or the battalions of horses and elephants charging into chaos in Boys’ Art #8: Battle of Panipat, 1739, 2003—suggests an aesthetic meditation parallel in its intensity to the sense of portent that must have underscored the battles themselves.

If Kozloff is critiquing war and the impulses that lead to it, it’s not without an appreciation for the appeal of martial conflict. But her tendency to always be more Victorian (read: quaint) than medieval (read: grim) mirrors a nostalgia for a time when battles were fought by well-styled soldiers in exotic locales, and, overall, our fatal disconnect from the increasing reality of war.

Three large works clearly announce Kozloff’s dismay at the persistence of magical thinking, both in war itself and in the link between war and economic, military, and technological prowess. In Dark and Light Continents, 2002, a contemporary satellite photo of the earth at night is reproduced on the twelve adjacent gores of a globe. The amount of light emanating from each area of the planet is linked to its affluence and its access to resources, so that the piece is an index of that which each bright expanse exacts from the populations in the dark.

In Spheres of Influence, 2001, another large work in the same format, Kozloff depicts heavily populated areas around the Mediterranean during Greco-Roman times. Dotting these bright pastel maps, however, are symbols of American tactical pilotage charts (some of these zones are still contested). Suggesting that the US is another Rome isn’t new. But reiterating the existence of American imperialism in clear visual terms from within our historical moment is a rare breath of fresh air.

The exhibition also features a cradle papered with an antique map of Mesopotamia and diagrams of the American invasion of Baghdad in spring 2003. A sign requests the viewer to rock the cradle and complete the pun: I rock (Iraq) the cradle of civilization. Positioned alongside drawings that hint at the fact that war is always marketed (starting with young males), the sculpture also speaks to the paternalism and hubris with which we treat the rest of the world. In the end, Kozloff’s critique is deft, even sympathetic. She illustrates a vision of conflict as vital as it is capricious, all the more magnetic for the fact that we can no longer afford it.

Tom Breidenbach