New York

Joyce Kozloff, Uncivil Wars: Battle of Appomattox Court House, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 34 × 42 1⁄2".

Joyce Kozloff, Uncivil Wars: Battle of Appomattox Court House, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 34 × 42 1⁄2".

Joyce Kozloff

In September 2018, while working on Memory and Time, her public project at the Carroll A. Campbell Jr. Federal Courthouse in Greenville, South Carolina—unveiled this past summer—Joyce Kozloff was bewildered to find new Confederate flags decorating each gravestone in the local cemetery, dedicated to the hundreds of soldiers from that area who died during the American Civil War. Kozloff realized how deeply that conflict was ingrained in the Southern identity, and recognized the divisive power of that flag, those famous words by Mississippi-born novelist William Faulkner seeming tragically real: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” From then on, she started studying and collecting maps related to the Civil War, and in March 2020 she used this research to begin a new series of paintings. Around that time, the New York–based artist and activist had just gotten over Covid-19, and her own body, assaulted by the virus, had been a battlefield—much like the United States under Trump’s reckless, virulent leadership.

Kozloff’s “Uncivil Wars,” her solo exhibition here, featured a body of work that was by turns political, autobiographical, and emotional. The show identified the scars left by American history that we are still dealing with and that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and by the propaganda and poor governance that have nurtured racism and xenophobia throughout the US. Up until this presentation, I hadn’t seen anything as direct or as bold as Kozloff’s project, which comprised twelve colorful canvases incorporating old Civil War maps of major battles at various sites—including Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Jackson, Mississippi—that were originally designed by officers and soldiers from both the Union and the Confederate armies. But Kozloff merged the past with the present in these pieces, as gigantic coronaviruses—gathered like hordes of deadly alien fleets and rendered in queasy reds, blues, oranges, and greens—littered the surface of every image. Their spiky forms burst into these pictures like detonated bombs—bringers of death and destruction.

Kozloff has long used maps in her work to explore power and control. In these paintings, the artist meticulously retraced all the details of the principal battlefields from the original documents. We saw hills, woods, trees, rivers, and the whiter-than-white names of various territories in a blocky classical script. Kozloff resolved each map with different formal solutions and a vibrant range of hues. In one of the most intriguing works, Uncivil Wars: Battle of Vicksburg, 2020, a septet of aggressive viruses hover menacingly in outer space. Below them is the titular city rendered in indigo, while the Mississippi River, painted tangerine and coral, slithers through the landscape like a fat snake. In Uncivil Wars: Battle of Shiloh, 2021, an octopus-style monster extends its tentacles like something out of a sci-fi movie as a battalion of viruses encircle it. The beast is threatening, incomprehensible—presumably a manifestation of the anguish we all shared during the worldwide lockdowns. The dizzying polychromatic patterning of Uncivil Wars: Appomattox Court House, 2021, which details the place where the Civil War armistice was signed, features an array of explosive forms in crimson, lime, and rose, evoking jubilation. But it also suggests the blazingly quick speed of Covid-19’s spread and the pervasive grief and sadness it caused.

“About 620,000 soldiers died in the US Civil War,” noted writer and curator Barbara Pollack in a conversation with Kozloff about the show, “almost the same [as the number of] US deaths from Covid in the last year.” Faced with the global conundrum of health and collective security undermined by malevolent political propaganda, the artist’s bright but sobering show hit the bull’s-eye: The war is not over yet, and the battles go on.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.